That Would Make an Interesting Paper

Drema and Rowan

If you’re not laughing at this post’s title, you have never had the privilege of having the luminous, engaging, and caring Rowan Keim Daggett for a professor.

When I transferred to Manchester University (at the time Manchester College), I was a shy first year student. Rowan’s small literature classes and exuberant take on books meant I quickly found myself speaking up without meaning to.

She made even the most obscure work easier and worthwhile to tackle. She introduced me to Atwood and Morrison. I later won an award from the Indiana Collegiate Press Association for a book review on Atwood’s Cat’s Eye which we read in Rowan’s Contemporary Literature class. And I have fallen in love with Beloved multiple times since first reading it with her. I once desired to emulate Morrison’s writing because of that blessed book. Turns out my writing is nothing like hers in form, voice, or content, but it gives me much pleasure to read her novels.

Okay, so I never took to Updike, but Rowan tried.

If you made a particularly salient point she’d say “that would make an interesting paper.” Nothing you said was ever stupid or off topic. You could make the most fragile connection and she’d support it.

Teachers and their ilk have often been a safe and happy place for me, and I must confess that I spent quite a lot of time in Rowan’s corner office just talking. She was knowledgeable and fun.

Her class was the first place I ever found myself uttering the “f bomb.” She was teaching us about voiced fricatives (I think) and she used the word to get us to feel it, telling us to put our hands to our throats. “Say —-,” she said and I did along with everyone else, though so quietly I doubt I could be heard. I was simultaneously horrified and delighted to utter the word.

I wish I could say that was the last time I ever said it.

She once had one of her classes (Women in Lit?) over to her lakefront house. There was great food, conversation, and I seem to remember a brilliant songwriter bringing out his guitar and later jumping off the pier — sans guitar, of course.

I unexpectedly returned to college from Christmas break a married woman (crazy kids that Barry and I were). He and I had a couple of Rowan’s classes together, and he soon loved her as much as I did, though I was scandalized when my naughty new husband passed me notes and whispered to me during her class.

When I decided to leave college with an AA rather than finish my bachelor’s (though I was pretty close to finishing my bachelor’s — someone time travel backwards and tell me not to leave!), I didn’t tell Rowan. I feared she would be disappointed, and I thought she’d try to help me fight the battle that may have allowed me to stay, and I just couldn’t handle it anymore and I didn’t think it was anyone else’s responsibility. I’d done all I could do. I’ve always regretted not telling her that I was leaving.

In 2007 I returned to (then) MC, determined to earn my bachelor’s. With age and experience under my belt, I figured I’d slay any dragon I must to accomplish my goal. How touched I was to receive the Rowan Keim Daggett scholarship. They had a dinner for scholarship recipients and I was able to sit with her for the first time in years and tell her how much she meant to me.

I found myself talking with her about my latest paper on Woolf’s Lighthouse which she found, of course, “Interesting.” She had introduced me to Woolf’s “Three Guineas” and “A Room of One’s Own” in her classes years before, but she said it had been a long time since she’d read Lighthouse.  I refreshed her memory and then told her the connections I was making and she had, of course, wonderful suggestions. I felt as if I were back in her unadorned office surrounded by her piles of books.  What a memorable place that was.

Thankfully, I asked someone to take a picture of us at the dinner. The photo was taken during my pre-running days and clearly I thought Nashville sparkle was slimming, so please be kind.

Sometimes when I criticize an idea I have, I stop and just hear her words: “That would make an interesting paper.” And you know what? Usually that’s true. But nowadays I turn that paper into a story or a book. How sad that I wasn’t sharing my fiction in those days with much of anyone. How supportive she would have been. Maybe she would have said “That would make an interesting novel.” Chances are, I would have listened, and I would have gone for it much earlier.

Still, that I have gone for it at all is due in part to her gracious support. We love you, Rowan, wherever you are, and we hope you will be reading interesting papers and books forever.

Take it on the Chin? Only if Warranted…What to Do with Criticism

It’s going to happen. If you are a writer who ever shares your writing, it will happen. You will receive either solicited or unsolicited criticism. What you do with that can either improve your writing or make it worse. What to do?

Consider the source. Did you solicit this critique? If so, ask yourself why you asked this particular person and consider the remarks strictly within that context. For example, I have lit head friends I ask to read my work and I want them to Rip. It. Up. Sometimes they are too kind, but oh sometimes they bleed all over it, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am when they do.

I may not agree with their suggestions and conclusions and I revise with that in mind, but sometimes they are dead on and I want to worship at their feet for their keen observations.

Then there are those I ask to read who I just need to run the plot by for “uggy” points or inconsistencies. And to see if it’s a fun/emotional read. I listen just as carefully to those readers.

The worst person to ask to read your work? Someone whose approval you seek who maybe doesn’t have the chops to edit your work. Don’t do. Just don’t. Because A. It’s pathetic. And B. If they do love your work (and you’re brilliant so of course they will, right?) they may steer you in the wrong direction if they don’t have the skill level to truly help you.

You may well find your vision being subverted. Not. Good. The world needs YOUR voice, YOUR vision. (Skillfully edited by qualified, loving hands.)This nearly always means do not let anyone related to you critique your work. Unless you’re related to me; (delusion warning ahead) I attempt to be a competent, impartial reader. 😉

Consider carefully the suggestion itself. Some things are truly a matter of style and it doesn’t matter a tinker’s dam(n) (it is spelled both ways in multiple places) which way you write it. But if it’s a matter of using nonstandard English and you’ve done it for effect, keep it in unless your critic makes a great argument against.

I was truly pleased with one of my early published stories, and I still re-read it in its published form occasionally for inspiration. Every beat feels right – almost. Those few lines that were edited that I didn’t quibble over, though, stop me every time. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against editing, but those areas were not, in my opinion, improved by this person who doesn’t quite have my esthetic. In this case I should have fought for my words.

This surely doesn’t need saying, but if you receive unsolicited criticism, feel free to ignore it. But if you’re a good writer who wants to get better, still study it. It may be a gift from the Universe.

If you make a mistake and it’s pointed out (either publicly or privately), take it on the chin. You screwed up. Deal with it. I’ve learned from my mistakes. Often that sort of feedback comes too late to spare us present embarrassment, but thank goodness for short memories, yes? And for future opportunities to get it right.

Most importantly, know what you are trying to accomplish, know your style, and never stray from those two things and you will always be able to disentangle yourself from the chains of depression criticism can wind about you if you allow it. (And I do not!)

You are the only one who knows what you are trying to say. You are the only one who knows if writing ten miles out of the way and then coming back in and loping that off is the way to go. If it’s not a finished product (and is it ever, really?), feel free to accept or reject anything. Even if a salient point is made, what’s most important is your artistic goal. Don’t allow someone else to guide you off course. YOU are the final authority.

For your amusement: me as a little chunk muffin. Probably age 5.

For your amusement: me as a little chunk muffin. Probably age 5. Who put that outfit together? Looking at the colors, I’m guessing me.

Thoughts?