By Alex Cendrowski, Writing Studio Consultant
During the start-of-the-semester orientation I’ve taken part in twice now as a consultant with the USF Writing Studio, there’s always a comforting and welcome note that any consultant can handle any discipline, any type of writing. Our ranks in the Studio are made up of engineers, historians, artists, and, yes, persons under the English Department label. Yet as much as there’s an assured mutual ability among our ranks, there’s one topic through which a certain discomfort has been voiced, again and again, by my peers: consulting for a creative writer.
Now, before we get too far into this conversation, it’s important for me to note that I’m an MFA student in creative writing.
So that my coworkers find talking about the work I do difficult is simultaneously a source of pride and shame.
Pride because, yeah, creative writing is hard. But shame because the stigma that there are those who can talk about art (and creative writing is art) and those who can’t is one I feel like I’ve perpetuated throughout my college career. I’m a literature snob. I hang out with other creative writers, who are also literature snobs. We talk about the things we’re trying to do with our work, and the conversations get heady and abstract and wrought with terms that can sound alien and alienating to our peers who are just trying to join the conversation.
So this post is about that.
Anyone can consult a creative writer.
Pictured above is the writing process. Or at least the components of that process that we’re interested in as Writing Studio consultants. (There’s not pictured, for instance, where the original writer’s idea comes from – maybe from reading another writer’s physical object, or from history, or from a bad breakup.) Writing is an act of communication and that doesn’t change when someone is writing creatively. An author is always trying to communicate something: an idea, an emotion, or some mix of the two represented through characters, plots, and language. But the story itself, at least as we can understand it, doesn’t really exist on the page. It exists in your mind as a reader. The page is just the thing that prompts that story to exist in your brain. The writer’s goal, then, is to make the abstract idea on the right look like the abstract idea on the left. (If this concept interests you, check out Roland Barthes’s essay “Death of the Author” as a springboard.)
The act of consulting a creative writer, then, has to be an act that relies on and celebrates the subjective experience of reading. I think this is where most of my peers run into anxiety. In many consultations, there’s the notion that there’s a way things are done, and the instinct to look for that pattern in creative writing isn’t unfounded. There’s a reason creative writing is taught after all. But, in 50 minutes, you’re not looking to teach a creative writer how to write. You’re having a conversation with her, and it’s a conversation that’ll sound similar to most consultants of other projects: What are you trying to accomplish? (The creative writer’s version of, “What’s the assignment?”) and This was my experience reading this; is that what you wanted?
That’s it. If you can properly compare and contrast (and you can, because you’re brilliant and were hired to be a consultant for a reason), then you can consult a creative writer. Ask questions about intent, provide detailed commentary on your emotional and intellectual responses to the piece’s components, and allow the writer to make the creative choices they feel are best to piece those two components together. Nine times out of ten, they don’t want someone to tell them what to do. They want someone to tell them what they’ve done. So your job is to be a reader of their work. And that’s insanely valuable.