Addendum to below (I think)– I was remembering one of the first “books” I wrote when I was a kid. Wrote it on legal pad. Called it a novel. Worked on it sitting in the maple tree in the back yard or on the roof I could climb onto from my bedroom window. Something about looking down already present in my relationship– seeing without being seen. The one I’m thinking of was called The Little People and it was NOT about legos (though I had and loved the little people- they were just heads on fat pegs then with glued-on hairpieces but I would never have considered casting toys in a book– I would use the toys to act out things that were realer in my imagination– or more complex– unrepresentable by the toys, but attached to toys like metaphor– and it was not brownies or whatever I did not know or connect to that myth and the universe I imagined was unrelated)
anyhow– I remember writing in the first chapter that the little people were exactly like us, just small, a couple of inches. And then I went about writing, essentially, a family drama. They were not Stuart Little (which I did like but did not associate with my book)– they were not in a world that was giant to them. They were just like us, but everything was little. I do remember wondering at some point why I wasn’t interested in their littleness once I got going. I was just interested in their peopleness. I felt a little ashamed, or boring, but persisted. And it occurs to me now, that it might just have been that the littleness allowed me to go ahead and write about them, and it was only in that way that it mattered– not like little dolls handled by a monstrous child’s hand– a god’s hand– but a gentler form of what I probably heard later in workshops was “permission”– not a term I love– or at least a term that needs revivifying to sound anything except alternately patronizing or self-aggrandizing to me– to make them conceivable in one part of my brain so that I could do what I wanted with the other.
keep trying to figure out how to get students to write better without making it about old-fashioned simple-minded lit vs genre. I think it’s a matter of intent vs content. It’s never what you write about (dragons, divorces, space-ships, dormitories) it’s about what you are trying to do as you write. Are you trying to conform to genre– any genre (including domestic or social realism, literary fiction or whatever) or are you trying to work things out– life things– via writing fiction. It’s not as simple as “write for yourself” but that is related. But you do not write for yourself in a vacuum. How do you learn from and use what you read while resisting conforming to genre? How do you judge what from your reading is good to take on and what to leave behind? I have such a hard time– unlike practically any teacher I’ve ever encountered, saying “this is bad writing” even though I believe I know what is bad writing. I want to be able to convince students that the difference is art and have that be meaningful to them as a pursuit. But convincing– is that really possible, or my job? Plenty of students are just there– art made them value art– the ones who aren’t, what do I even have to do with it?