So yesterday was the last day of the semester for my junior level fiction workshop, and we were scheduled to discuss a story (a really good one) by a student whose name I have been mispronouncing all semester. It’s not a difficult name, either, just a matter of a short vs long vowel in one of three syllables, but I could never remember which, and each time I’ve chosen wrong, prompting a chorus of corrections from everyone sitting in her row. After a while I just stopped trying, using avoidance tactics (made easier because the student is fairly shy in class).
But when her work is up for discussion, there are no avoidance tactics. So I devised an elaborate plan. I would give out prizes (lit journals) based on class ballots for best writer, best feedback, etc, and to refresh everyone’s memory, I made every one say their name and remind everyone what stories they had shared in workshop.
That worked for me–it was a long A–but the larger revelation was that the students really struggled with describing their work, so much so that many of them stammered or were dismissive. It struck me as strange because they were otherwise a talented, confident group (so confident they had me scared of a name).
I know I work for weeks trying to craft a coherent 150 word summary for a novel query, and most of that comes from anxiety that makes me blank out about my work–it’s like a white fog. I wonder if they weren’t experiencing a little of that, and I wonder further if there isn’t some value in teaching “about” skills. That is, as much as some writers bristle at the question “What is your book about,” readers want to know. I’m going to try to include some practice in the “about” zone for next semester.