Students are the Best Teachers

I’ve had a few chances to connect with upperclassmen over the last week here at Randolph. One event was a mini-presentation and group discussion between myself, the arts faculty at the college, and all the BFA juniors and seniors. This is a small school, so the writing, theatre, painting, and dance majors total less than 15 (excluding those studying abroad). The setting felt intimate, yet the collective thinking in the room did not feel in any way limited. I brought in the Flashes of War broadsides and, together, we discussed the power of the right concrete image to illuminate subtext. The mixed-background group was then able push the discussion further, considering how subtext is revealed in other mediums such as dance or theatre.

Another event involved a basic classroom visit for a Q&A. Although the students were required to ask me something based on my reading they attended, for the most part I could feel their genuine interest on the other side of such questions. One of the more seemingly simple questions caught me off guard: “How do you deal with characterization in your stories?” Without hesitation, I confessed that characterization isn’t something I think about very often–and not because I shouldn’t, rather, because I’m really still learning exactly what that is. I know it when I see it, but I can’t produce it on a whim. And I sure as heck haven’t reached a point where I can describe the character as a whole person without seeing him/her move around for 100 pages or so. Who are these people I am creating? How have their lives shaped their fears and desires? Once I feel I know the answers to these questions, the novel should be over. At least, that’s how I’m carrying on right now.

I used to wonder how my friends that wrote novels could stand to put hours and hours into their chapters, knowing that in a few months they’d very likely make some major craft or plot change that rendered those chapters useless (or, in the least, required a major rewrite). But I can see now how, especially on a first run-through, the pages I’m writing are only very faint glimmers of the places, people, and events I hope to bring to life by the time this thing reaches a final draft. I have to start somewhere, and if what I can start with are pale imitations, I’ll take it. I trust that what I’m doing now will inform what I have yet to write, and any pages that get tossed in the meantime are in some way going to add depth and believability when I have to write new scenes and come at something from a different angle.
A third experience was with a staff writer for the student newspaper. This young woman was so delightfully self-possessed, articulate, and professional…and I was her first subject for her very first newspaper article ever. I felt quite impressed by her! One question she asked me, “Why do you write about war?”, is one that I know I am going to need to be able to answer repeatedly over the next year. My first response to this question, which I never say out loud, is “How can I not?” I don’t say that out loud because if I do, in the next breath I’ll start citing statistics (50,000 soldiers with one or more missing limbs; $2600 per soldier per day, $300 milling dollars A WEEK in Afghanistan alone). As powerful as statistics can be, they can also put people on the defensive, and that’s not what my fiction is about.

I tried answering this question once in a blog post, and another time in a radio interview. Each time the question is forced on me, I like to think I’m getting closer and close to an answer, but I don’t know if that’s true yet. Preparing for the book launch, I’ll need a short answer and a long answer. Depending on my audience, I’ll also need a craft-based answer for writers and a creative-process based answer for readers. For now, I can thank the students of Randolph College for being great teachers to me this week. They kept me on my toes, and I’m better for it.

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