Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Note On Confident Humility

I spend a lot of time in workshops. A lot of time with aspiring writers. A lot of time with published writers that continue to struggle and grasp for more. Etc. In situations were artists are pressed together intensely lots of good stuff happens, certainly, but not everyone handles their successes or disappointments with equal grace. I'm aware that I spend more time noticing the lack of grace - strenuous self-promotion, aggressive criticism of others, defensiveness, genre elitism, those folks that use every occasion of public speaking to reference their recent successes - than I acknowledge when someone gets it right. So this post is meant to highlight a positive example.

I recently workshopped a very good student story. It convinced me from the first lines. It covered all the basic storytelling bases and then did a variety of further things with understated ease. No bells and whistles. No need to explain or obscure. Just very good writing and a substantive, quirky tale as well. This story was good enough, in fact, that my edits were light and my response included a declaration that I rarely make: that if I was the right editor at the right magazine I'd buy it.

The workshop went well, although I'm never sure that other students quite know what to make of it when I say a story is publishable. It must be a strange thing, considering that over a semester I may see two stories each from twelve different writers, but then only pull out that stamp of approval once. What gives? I don't entirely know how to explain it, but some stories just announce within their fabric that they've arrived. Their genetic code lines up. They exist, blemishes and all, and they exist in a way that for me feels ready for prime time.

Now, the part of this that has to do with humility is that I only discovered later that this particular story had been accepted for publication just before the workshop. Not only that, but another story the same writer submitted to another workshop (also given the stamp of ultimate approval by that workshop leader) had also been accepted. Two new stories. Two hits. Two publications that occurred between the writing of the stories and the workshop meant to tear them apart in critique. That's terribly rare. But it's also rare for a new author faced with the uncertainties of a workshop to withhold information like that. I've seen people try to shape the focus of a workshop before it's begun. Or who inflate their credentials ahead of time (often with self-referential things said while they're critiquing someone else's work). Or who would hold that publication information as a shield to be brandished to deflect all criticism.

The student in this case did none of that. He entered and exited the workshop without a word intended to bias or control the discussion, despite the fact that he had more than the usual ammunition to do so if he wished. Quiet confidence. Without distraction. Competence demonstrated where it matters - on the page.

What does that evoke from me? Respect.

(Yes, I'm saying that like Ali G, but I mean it.)

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7 Comments:

Anonymous Jess said...

So, who should we be looking for if we want to read the story? =D

12:48 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

That's a secret. (The teachery-part of me feels uncomfortable with seeming to pick favorites.) But I'll be happy to direct you to the story once it actually comes out. (Because I'm happy to point toward hard evidence of publication success.)

Not sure if that makes sense, but...

3:09 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Interesting. I'm not sure I would have the stones to say nothing at all - that sounds strange but commendable. That is a level of confidence I would like to work toward, but I honestly don't think it's something you can learn.

I'll be looking forward to reading it when it's out.

12:01 AM  
Blogger paranoyd said...

The last comment from Jennifer was actually from me.

12:02 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Ah... Interesting how I read that comment differently when I think it's from Jennifer instead of from Paranoyd. Same words, but a different... tonal resonance to me.

8:32 AM  
Blogger paranoyd said...

Hmm. Is that a good or bad thing?

11:42 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Neither.

3:14 PM  

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