Tag Archives: high school

Just Say No

My in-laws are an interesting bunch.  They’re lovely people and I like them and all, but they have their quirks, especially when it comes to communication.  Specifically, the lack thereof.  Granted, my family tended to overcommunicate, and just say what we were thinking, consequences be damned (you might see hints of that on this site).  But my wife’s family isn’t guilty of that.  Rather, they will never, ever, tell you what they are actually thinking.

This can be maddening when making plans.  My sister-in-law is a highly educated person who nevertheless seems to do a lot of things on the fly.  My wife, by contrast, must come across as an over-planner, which I admit can be frustrating, but not as frustrating as deciding to do something without taking the time to find out if you can actually do it.  Driving for hours to a destination without knowing if it’s open, that sort of thing.

My brother-in-law is similar.  He’ll make plans and all, but he won’t ever say what he actually wants to do, nor even what he is planning, unless you very pointedly ask him.  Nor do we ever know what else he has going on.  We visit him frequently, yet in all these years have never met any of his social circle, except one time, at a formal event where it was impossible not to.  The most extreme case was the fact that he introduced us to a girl he was in a serious relationship with as “someone I used to work with.”

The whole family is compartmentalized this way, and tight-lipped.  When my sister-in-law separated, we didn’t even know until some six months after the divorce was final.  Wow.  I think this incredible reticence comes from their parents, who are, quite simply, the least confrontational people on the face of the earth.  They wouldn’t dream of, say, sending back an entrée at a restaurant, even if it were entirely inedible.  With some years of experience in the industry, I told them it was appropriate, that it was not uncommon, and the management needed to know there was a problem so they could make sure it doesn’t happen again.  But no, no, it’s fine.  They suffered in silence, ate almost nothing, and then paid the bill in full.

Okay, why am I bagging on my in-laws, other than because I am, as one person suggests, “a jerk”?  Because they serve as a cautionary tale that is relevant to my endeavors.  You see, the ultimate manifestation of this reluctance to speak up is the fact that none of them will ever come out and say the word “no.”  As I said, just try to make plans based on this.  We’ll spin our wheels waiting for my sister-in-law to tell us if she’s going to do something so that we can plan accordingly.  We’ll ask my brother-in-law if he wants to do a particular activity, and we have, after many years, learned that, if he says, “it’s a possibility,” it really means he has absolutely no interest and very little intention of doing it.

Why is it so hard to just come out and say “no”?  I could be uncharitable and call it a passive-aggressive thing, but it’s not that simple.  Many people struggle with no.  There are many reasons.  One is that people like to “keep their options open.”  This is inconsiderate, because they are saying they don’t want to make a commitment to you in case something better than you presents itself.  And with that, we are back in the world of high school dating.

We’ve all been there, at least all the guys.  You summon up the nerve to ask a girl out, bracing yourself for the pain of being told no.  But, miracle of miracles, she doesn’t say no.  She says, “I’m not sure.”  Uh oh.  Turn and run while you can!  But we never do.  We hang in there.  We ask again.  Perhaps she agrees to some minor thing, certainly not a “real date.”  Our hopes up, we keep at it.  We can’t even see when the evidence is in front of our faces.  We ask about this weekend.  “I already have plans.”  How about next weekend?  “I have plans then too.”  Okay, the end of the month?  “Sorry, plans.”  All right, what about next month?  “Oh, I don’t like to make plans that far ahead.” [based on a true story.]

We should get a clue, but we don’t.  And then, finally, when we can stand no more, we come out and ask if there is any chance.  She smiles and says, “You’re a really sweet guy…”  There it is, the signpost on the path that leads straight to the friend zone.  But then she says something a million times worse: “I didn’t mean to lead you on.”

Really?  Okay, then why did you?  It would have been pretty easy not to.  Except there we meet another infamous reason people don’t say no.  “I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”  Right.  Well, um, they’re pretty hurt right about now.  Because we are being lied to, and we know it.

You see, it’s not that she didn’t want to hurt your feelings, it’s that she didn’t want to hurt her own.  Turning people down, rejecting them, is not fun.  Granted, that are a few sociopaths who appear to thrive on that, but that’s another matter; for most people, it’s really unpleasant giving someone else the “bad news.”  You feel guilty, like a bad person.  It’s something most of us would rather avoid, and many do so.  One way is by never really saying no.

I’m used to hearing no.  Not just from the girls, although I got my share.  I’ve encountered plenty of rejection.  It’s not fun and, believe me, it’s a lot harder on the person being rejected than the person doing the rejecting, so don’t give me any crap about wanting to spare my feelings.

I don’t take rejection well.  Some people do.  These are people who love to put themselves out there, to show ‘em what they got.  “Gotta dance!”  Not me.  In my earlier years I explored both music and acting.  But, despite being a pretty good musician and a passable actor, I didn’t stay with it, because I hated the audition process.  Putting yourself out day after day to get stepped on.  Not for me.

Which makes it odd that I am planning to try to get published.  Talk about rejection.  I can expect years—I mean years—of rejections before I even can hope for a bite.  The odds against me are so long I’d be better off playing the lottery.  So why do I do it?  I’m not sure.  I like my story, I feel good about it.  Granted, whenever I investigate various writers’ forums and such on line, I always encounter dozens of YA authors with multiple publications to their name and all of them make it clear from what they talk about that everything I’m doing is wrong and I have no chance of ever getting published.  Oh yeah, and never give up, and write what’s in your heart.  Thanks for the consistency.

But I know that the writing I have done and the revising I am doing now is the easy fun part compared to the query process.  All I can say is that I don’t want to have my feelings spared.  All I ask is a simple no.

When I was a grad student, I, along with a number of fellow students, followed my professors’ advice and submitted a paper to a respected journal.  I got the nastiest rejection letter you could imagine.  None of this, “Thank you for your interest.  Unfortunately, your piece does not meet our needs at this time.”  Oh no, I got a full page letter that went into detail how inadequate my scholarship was.  They were right, of course.  I was a grad student, still learning.  I learned about academic rejection.  I’d like to think that that letter prepared me for anything else that could be thrown at me.

But what I don’t need is something “nice.”  Don’t send me a rejection letter that starts, “You’re a really sweet guy…”  I’ve been told by fellow writers what an accomplishment it is to get a personal rejection.  Rather than a form letter, the fact that someone took the time to write me personally and tell me why my work was unsuitable is cause for celebration, because it meant there was enough there to make it worth responding to.

Sorry, I don’t buy it.  You see, there is no difference between a form rejection and a personal one.  They are both rejections.  Period.  I skip straight to the no.  Having established that fact, I really don’t care what else they have to say, because it won’t change anything.  The answer is still “no.”

My fellow writers would say, “But you can learn from what they said and improve your writing.”  But will that get them to reconsider their decision?  No, it will not.  In fact resending a manuscript is a major faux pas.  Okay then, I can still learn and do better for the next editor.  Except every editor is unique, with their own standards and quirks, and while one editor might say that this particular element is why he didn’t want it, that same element may well be exactly what some other editor would find compelling.  So following the advice could amount to cutting my own throat.  You can’t play that game.

In the end, I don’t want to know what was bad, because it won’t help.  Nor, even more so, do I want to know how close I came.  That’s the other cause for celebrating, supposedly.  They liked it, thought it was really good, but not quite what they wanted.  Sorry, but that doesn’t make me feel better.  Would you feel better if the doctor tells you they almost saved your leg?  How about when the girl says she nearly agreed to go out with you, but finally decided not to?  What if a friend says he almost bought you a nice present for your birthday?  You say it’s the thought that counts?  Hardly.  That makes it worse, not better.  Now you’re beating yourself up for what nearly was.

So just say no.  Have the spine to give a straight answer.  Don’t dress it up with “encouragement.”  Rejection is rejection.  The sooner you let me know you aren’t interested, the sooner I can move on and make other plans.  Is that really too much to ask?

As the saying goes, “It’s a possibility.”

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Form Over Fiction

This summer I will be teaching a literature class.  Well, not exactly; it’s really a composition class that focuses on literature. What distinguishes this course from a literature survey class is the emphasis.  Survey courses, whether focused on a particular genre, period or culture, require a great deal of reading and a moderate amount of writing, whereas this class I will be teaching requires somewhat less reading and a great deal more writing. 

It’s not a class that a lot of students look forward to.  Having at most a moderate interest in reading, they see the class, with some justification, as one in which they will be expected to “love” literature, to listen to a professor read some incomprehensible poem to them and then breathlessly say, “Doesn’t that just touch your soul!” in response to which they’re thinking, “No.”

But of course, you can’t teach students to like something, nor should you try.  Rather, you teach them to appreciate it, but it should not be expected that such appreciation will lead to liking, although, again, some professors do seem to have that mindset: if you don’t like it, it must be because you haven’t studied it closely enough.  That may well be a big part of why the students don’t like it.

That’s why my focus is on the critical process.  I tell the students outright I don’t expect them to like the stuff they read.  To that end, the first work they read is a short story I expect many of them to hate, thus giving them permission to do so, something they may well never have gotten before in an English class.  They are then freed to simply examine what the story is doing.  Those who like it learn how to articulate why they do, while those who do not can articulate that dislike, but also understand why others have a different perspective.  And that’s the objective of the course.

I focus less on the literature itself than on the tools for analysis.  In other words, I introduce my students to the principles of Literary Criticism.  Now there’s something that strikes fear into many a student’s heart. Even my colleagues express trepidation about my emphasis on Critical Theory.  But, properly understood, criticism is simply the application of one or more different ways of examining how a work of literature does what it does.

I don’t teach the course all that often, but this time it will be an especially new experience for me: this will be the first time I have taught the course since I began my own writing in earnest.  I’m wondering how that will change my perspective.  I know it has already clarified something that has long puzzled me, the continued emphasis in the classroom on one particular critical approach: Formalism.

Formal criticism came into prominence about the middle of the last century and was also referred to as the “New Criticism.”  The emphasis is on the form of the work.  In poetry this meant things like meter, rhyme and stanzas; in fiction it refers to such familiar concepts as plot, setting, point of view, and so forth  This was revolutionary at the time, when previously the study of literature focused on understanding the author and period, and finding the author’s intended meaning.  

But Formalism flourished decades ago, and today is anything but “New.”  Criticism has moved on to other approaches and few established critics use it any more.  Sure, they make mention of things like plot and character, but you don’t find formal analysis in literary journals.  It exists today only in the classroom.  Why?  Well, for one thing, it does give us a baseline of concepts to help us name the things we examine.  But that doesn’t explain why the teaching of literature to non-majors tends to stop there.   I’d always assumed it was just old habits.  Then I started writing.

I have found that virtually every resource for writers I encounter focuses on Formal characteristics.  A recent conference I attended included an editing workshop that discussed plot and setting and point of view and could easily have been one of my lectures.  We were even shown the classic graph of rising action-climax-falling action.  It dawned on me that, while I already knew a lot about all those things, many of my fellow attendees perhaps did not, as they aren’t English teachers.  I realized how vital it is to understand those concepts when one writes.  And I understood one more reason why we emphasize them in English classes.

For many English majors, it’s all about literature; for many English teachers it’s all about creativity.  This is especially true at the pre-collegiate level.  In high school English classes the line between studying literature and creating it is often blurred, even eradicated.  Students learn about poetry by writing poems, about fiction by writing stories.  I’m not saying this is a bad approach, but it does indicate where many English teachers are coming from, and why Formalism lives on in the classroom.

What I am saying is that it is incomplete, that the objective of English education should be more than self-expression through creative writing.   And indeed it is, and I know I’m not giving my profession enough credit.  But there is a place for criticism, and it’s not something that should be feared or hated, but rather embraced.  Because in fact we use it all the time, we just don’t realize it.  My goal is for my students to understand what it is that they already do, and thus understand the real importance of literature.  It’s not just a good (or bad) story, it’s a way of seeing and comprehending the world.   They know that.  They just don’t know that they know.


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