I first heard of failure as it relates to writing from my old writing teacher and mentor Will Hochman . And I don’t mean he failed me or told me I was a failure. No, he was tough on me but kind and nurtured his students from draft to draft. Never had composition with him but rather lit courses and creative writing–poetry and fiction. He gave me Richard Hugo and gave me Donald Hall. He saw something in me I did not see in myself at the time.
Later he got me a gig as a writing center tutor getting paid to work with writing–getting paid to work with students. This led to teaching community college courses, led to a career and an obsessive compulsive view of fiction and poetry. Will helped make the failed writer I am today. As much as Huerfano County and Pueblo County. I mean he helped me appreciate failure in writing. To appreciate the long, dificult process of writing. This is something I try to instill in my students. This is the kindness I always try to find for my students.
Here is a note from his website (stolen without permission–Sorry, Will):
Accept humanity’s flaws as what it means to be you. Sometimes how we write ourselves is all about the heuristic of failure.
In other words, writing is about empathy and humanity. And I recognize how dificult that is. Can I teach empathy in 16 weeks? I can surely lead the way–or try. I suppose you will need to ask my students about that because my students feel 16 weeks of a semester as too brief of a time to complete a significant change in literacy skill. They say I push too hard–like all students complaining. And I can only suggest it is enough time to craft at least 4 writing assignments. But mostly I try to instill the care for writing–the care for drafting. That same appreciation of learning from failure. From understanding what makes writing bad and what makes writing effective. To understand literary quality not as a critic but as a human–with empathy and hope. And that is not a failure.
But at the end of a term like here in school in the last week of classes we are talking quite a bit about revision and escaping from the failed document. To improve academic non-fictive spaces and I think of Will. I think of how I have become a mentor or someone who passes-on this idea of failure–a success in my view. The idea to see things where they can begin and not always where they are stopping off–to steal from Salinger. Oh, Will didn’t give me Salinger but he gave me more of Salinger.
One thought on “Writing Mentors and the Passing Down of Failure”
At the time she said it, I didn’t quite know what she meant. “Don’t give away your power,” my mentor said to me when I gave her (what I thought of was the reason, not an excuse) for why I didn’t think my work was up to standard. “You do understand that now I’ll read it with that lens,” she said.
At the time, it struck me as a little odd. On one level I could understand. On another, I deeply resented it because it seemed as though she was telling me to be inauthentic, fake, to cop an overly confident attitude. “Maybe if I don’t tell her my work isn’t up to standard, she won’t see that it isn’t!” Ugghh.
I now find that I understand “don’t give away your power” quite differently, and I also tell my women students all the time. Many of them are conditioned to put others’ needs and goals before their own. Many of them are also conditioned to make big “doe eyes” at me and hope that I will take their excuses into consideration. Even though these women are highly capable and have to juggle many things just in order to be in the classroom, they end up sabotaging themselves and then want me to be okay with it.
I’m not. It isn’t that failure isn’t good or mistakes aren’t acceptable. They are inevitable, they are learning experiences, they are some of what shapes us the most.
I guess what these students don’t know is that if someone is apparently working very hard, I always give her or him the benefit of the doubt, but I don’t want her to tell me that she couldn’t make the time to do the work right–not because she had to do other things, not because I expect perfection–but because she isn’t being true to herself.
I’m not articulating this exactly as I want to–it’s a “failed writing comment draft #1,” but I know that I want to think about this more, and that your post on Will set the little synapses firing in my brain this morning. Maybe it all ties into that self-respect essay Didion talks about.