Playing with Numbers

There are times in the ferocious Texas summer heat when I find myself taking refuge in whimsy. I recently spent an August afternoon trying to compute how many comments on student work have been uttered during my tenure as director.

It was an eccentric project, I’ll grant you, but bear with me. I’ve been director of the Michener Center for seventeen years. On average we hold four workshops a semester at the Dobie House. Normal class size is twelve. I would estimate that each student brings in ten comments to share with the writer whose work is being critiqued. Each writer receives 110 comments on his or her work (this may vary depending on whether you’re talking about fiction, poetry, playwriting or screenwriting, but not by much). In my fiction classes we do three stories per session. According to my math, this means that over seventeen years, 612,000 comments have been uttered across our mesquite conference room table.

While not as large a number as the national debt, the number of sperm dying in the mad rush to fertilize an egg, or the number of prayers chanted by monks during the Dark Ages, it still is a daunting figure.

It raises a raft of questions. How many of those comments were intelligent? I’m speculating here, but I’d say roughly 453,00. How many were thoughtful? 291,564. Smart, but beside the point? 97,600. Bone-headed? 43,214. Uttered by people who were merely echoing their classmates’ comments because they hadn’t actually read the work? 31,336.

Too much criticism from too many sources will drive any writer crazy. Imagine trying to play Beethoven in a blizzard. When a writer walks around with too many voices in his head, disaster is sure to follow. Rilke’s first bit of advice to his young poet was to shield himself from criticism for as long as he could, to find his voice in solitude. There’s wisdom in that. While I may draw a paycheck criticizing student work, when I’m writing a novel I never let anyone look at it for a couple of years.

But the issue is not a simple one. The right comment spoken at the right time can change the course of a writer’s career. What writer isn’t on the lookout for the perfect reader, someone in sympathy with his or her intent, but also brave enough to speak the truth?

One of the best things about writing programs is the furious intensity of the friendships that are formed there, the surreptitious exchange of manuscripts that goes on outside of class, the way that sparks can fly. The history of literature could barely be told without the history of friendships. What would Eliot have been without Pound? Or Hemingway without Gertrude Stein?

For twenty years I’ve walked around Town Lake on Sunday mornings with the novelist and screenwriter Steve Harrigan. We talk about children, friends, politics, and sometimes, usually after we pass the second bridge, our work.

These are not necessarily long conversations. I think we’re both naturally protective of our writing and wary of over-talking the life out of something. But these conversations are invariably useful, and often lifesavers. Sometimes all that is offered is a nudge or a word of encouragement. Other times the issues are more substantial—the issues of plausibility, the need for a fresh take on a scene or a character. Do some of the things he says piss me off? Absolutely. But I keep thinking about them and by Wednesday they often sound like words of genius.

How many writers have heeded Rilke’s advice about developing their voices in solitude? I’d say seven. It’s a complicated business. Writing never works very well by committee. The longer the list of writers on a Hollywood blockbuster, the surer you can be that the movie will be a mess. But on the other hand, writers do not thrive in terrariums. They need those private, never-to-be-repeated dreams of greatness, but they also need the grit of resistance. It takes a lot of sifting and winnowing to learn who to listen to, but it is one of the most important things you do as a writer. Take it from me: the radio needs to be turned down—a lot—but never totally off.