The Writer’s Transition

One benchmark in a writer’s maturity is facing the harsh reality of his or her reader. It’s a really important moment, and for many writers this will not happen until college (or later). Good editors are especially valuable because they help an author come face-to-face with these unforgiving realities. But every writer must reach this point of maturity. What follows is a transcribed fragment from something said by the late David Foster Wallace, at the time a creative writing prof at Pomona College, speaking in San Francisco in 2004:

“This will sound really nasty, but when you’re teaching undergrads, they’re not generating literature. Most of them are coming out of a high school experience where they were taught a model of writing that is fundamentally expressive. That is: ‘We want you to write, therefore anything you write is good. It’s good because you did it.’

Well, I’m making it sound cruder than it is, but it’s a big problem, especially with bright undergraduates — shifting them from a mode of expressive writing, where every reader is your mom, to communicative writing where you assume a busy adult [reader you’re trying to reach] has her own interests and time commitments. How are you going to make it worth it for this person to read your stuff?

You can start talking about that as early as freshman comp.

My experience is that it’s a heavy headtrip to students, the terror of suddenly realizing: You know it’s not good just because I did it, and the reader isn’t automatically interested in what I’m interested in. And how, in fact, am I going to make this interesting? As a discipline it’s really, really interesting. . . .

There’s nothing wrong with self-conscious writing. The trick with students is to make them realize that the consciousness they’re conscious of is simultaneously less and more interesting than they think it is. The two lethal kinds of students are the paralyzed ones who think anything they could have thought up has no interest to anybody else. And then there’s the other side, who are literally unable to imagine a reader not being as entranced with their stuff as they are. Both types of students can make good writers after a few years, but they both require a delicate combination of bedside manner and boot in the a**.”

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