Thursday, July 24, 2008

food for thought

With all the drama that the now-deleted posts stirred up, I think it brought one issue to light that I have batted around a few times on this blog, but perhaps need to devote an entire post to: At what point does a writer, at any level, share his/her work?

I posed this question to my friend and colleague today regarding the classroom peer-review process. Draft-sharing and peer reviewing have been a staple of the composition curriculum for the past twenty years, if not longer. Time and again I have seen the benefits of it. But I have also encountered students who make every effort to not be in class the day a draft is due for peer review, and it's not because he/she blew off the work. It was because he/she didn't want anyone to read it. The anticipation of doing so was anxiety-provoking. Of course, I have to deduct credit and participation points for their absence. Of course their work suffers as a result. I see that. But can I blame them for their reluctance? Why should I treat their process as less than my own. There's no right or wrong, when it comes to process.

I'm caught between the rock and the hard place. I cannot, in good conscience, simply say, "oh, that's ok, you don't *have* to share this draft or turn it in today" (although a voice in my head is itching to argue, "why not?"). On the other hand, look at what happened to me.

So here's what I think I need to do in terms of the classroom. I need to create a soft place to fall, and devise a way of responding that validates a person's insecurities about crappy first drafts while providing an atomosphere of trust and genuine willingness to usher each other through it in a way that is empowering rather than defeating. That's always been my goal, but I have to get better at it.

I think the way to do that is through questions rather than comments.

Last night I read a section of the novel to one of the teen writers from the QRB group. (Let me say for the record that this is not the typical purpose of the group -- that is to say, this is a forum for them, not me. But she was the only one who showed up, and she had nothing to workshop, and I tend to carry the manuscript w/ me wherever I go, so it was there and I asked for permission and she was interested.) It was a short chapter, an email exchange between protag and sidekick, for lack of a better description. This was one of the chapts that my writing partner and I had workshopped back and forth and had already produced three or four revisions, so it was pretty polished. Even as I read it aloud, I was thinking, Damn this is pretty good! I was especially impressed at how we'd captured distinct voices.

Anyhoo, she listened and wrote furiously at the same time, asking question after question after I'd finished reading. Some were th result of her needing additional info to better center herself in the context of the story, but others went directly to character motivation, plot movement, themes, etc. For example, she asked, "How aware is Eva of her situation that the reader is also privy to? In other words, does the reader have more of a clue than she does? Do they know the answers to her internal dialogue questions?" "How/ when do these awakenings happen?" "Why did her boyfriend break up w/ her? Did she see it coming?" And so on.

The time flew so quickly as I answered each question, sometimes saying, "here's what we're thinking but haven't put on the page yet" or "here's what we had but want to change because it doesn't work." As we continued to talk, she offered possibilities, or listened to some of the possibilities my writing partner and I have been discussing. And it was really great to have this sounding board.

When it was time to leave, I thanked her profusely.
"You know, this group should really be for you -- this isn't something I was intending," I said.
"No, this was great. I always enjoy hearing how someone else approaches something because it gets me thinking about my own work in new ways."

And that's precisely what I tell my students -- that's the benefit of peer review.

So maybe what I can do for my students is to offer a sounding board for them in which they don't necessarily have to share their draft (if they're feeling really insecure) but talk about it in response to a prompt of questions: What's working, if anything? (And there's almost always at least one thing that's working -- a topic they like, an introduction, etc.) What's not working? What are you trying to do? What do you want to do? What have you seen or heard in other drafts that you liked? What if you approached it from this angle? And so on.

Then, for those who share drafts, instead of responding w/ I like this, I like that, I didn't like this, I didn't like that, the same questions as above, plus some more specifically tailored ones, could work. In other words, get the writer talking about his/her writing. Get her thinking about it. And get the rest of us thinking, too.

And, of course, there has to be an environment of trust.

For so many, the peer-review and revision process is the most harrowing, and it's what turns many off to writing in the first place -- if I can harness power from it and turn it into something productive, then I think students could improve at wonderous rates. I hope, anyway.

I'll try.

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