A great piece of advice for any writer is to read as much as possible. If one wants to write novels, reading great novels can act as a blueprint. Over the course of 300 pages, one can track character arcs, revel in striking imagery, follow intricate plot lines and so on. Even though great novels give readers and writers so much, they can also intimidate, wreck confidence and cause one to question their own ability.
Many times, I’ve marveled at a passage written by Woolf or Garcia Marquez or even a funny zinger impeccably crafted by Joe Keenan (if you haven’t read any Keenan, please start with Blue Heaven). After I’ve been awed, sometimes doubt creeps in and I fear I’ll never be a fifth as talented. We all have ways of dealing with this anxiety. My creative writing students are not immune to it. Full discloser: I don’t have a surefire way of combating anxiety, but I have started assigning an experiment that has had a positive effect on the confidence of my students.
For a long time, I only read the masterworks of the masters. The best of the best. The top tier. It wasn’t until I had decided to read a variety of Joyce Carol Oates novels (from the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s) did I realize how widely an author’s output varies. Often, we forget our favorite writers have churned out less than stellar works. Very few authors have an output that is completely essential. By only studying the undisputed masterpieces are we doing our students a disservice? Can’t we learn from failures, from minor triumphs or from books that are just okay? I wanted my students to consider the development (or in some cases, the regression) of their favorite writers. So I came up with this assignment.
- Select an author from any genre: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama.
- Select three works written by the author. Of these three works select the author’s debut, a middle period work and their last, or latest work.
- Read the three works during the semester. I emphasize not rush-reading the three works in one or two weeks, reminding students to allow themselves time to soak up the narratives.
- Write a four-page paper exploring the ways in which the author’s voice developed over the course of the three works. Did their style change? Did they succumb to trends? Were there blind spots (gender, racial, class etc) in the first work but not in the third work, or vice versa? I allow students to write in the first person, keeping a casual tone. I want them to think of the paper as an exploration, not just a filler assignment.
- I ask them to reflect on their own work. What are some shortcomings they think they must deal with? What are their strengths?
Most of my students positively responded to the assignment and their responses were perceptive.