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Although this piece is about students studying art, it sprang from my contemplation about whether writing can be taught. As someone who makes my living teaching writing (mostly creative writing), I firmly believe students can gain a lot by taking writing classes, studying published work, and learning about craft. I tell my students that they need to learn the rules before they try to break them, but I do stress that rules for writing aren’t necessarily written in stone and there are certainly ways to effectively break rules. Nearly every semester I’ll have a student or two write something in their course evaluations about how they wish they could “just be creative” and write whatever or however they wanted in my class. They don’t see the value in studying, say, how to effectively use dialogue or how to work with conflict in a story, and I was trying to capture this attitude and the desire to “just be creative” in the students in “Perspective For Artists.”
When I was a student, I took a lot of writing and art classes, and in most of my classes I didn’t receive instruction on craft and was simply tasked with creating new work. While I enjoyed myself in those classes, I felt that I was missing something, some sort of understanding of why certain pieces my classmates and I created were working and why other pieces didn’t work. My classmates and I were missing the vocabulary with which to talk about each other’s work, and oftentimes class discussion didn’t move beyond emotional responses, with students simply saying whether they liked or disliked whatever was up for discussion and critique. Looking back on all those years in those classes, I think about how much more quickly I could have gotten to creating competent work if I’d been better guided through the process of creating art or a piece of writing.
I wanted to create a teacher in “Perspective For Artists” who believed strongly that she could teach her students the basic skills they would need to develop their artwork, and I decided to make this teacher young and inexperienced. So although she believes she is doing the right thing, she doesn’t exactly know how to handle the way the students are pushing against her methods. To add to this conflict, I decided to include a much beloved recently retired art teacher who’d let the students do whatever they pleased and gave the students all As and told them they were brilliant, no matter what they produced. In essence, their former art teacher completely ruined these girls for the new teacher. I think that the laziest thing a teacher can do is offer false praise; it’s easier to tell students that everything they’re doing is amazing instead of taking the time to figure out what could be improved. It’s easier to give everyone As than it is to give thoughtful feedback. I wanted to have this lazy teacher–whom we never actually see in the story because she immediately left town after retiring–be the root of a lot of the trouble in the story.
I suppose that ultimately this story is the result of some of my own frustrations as a teacher in a creative field. And I think the ending that I wrote is certainly my fantasy; I wanted those students to have the realization that the teacher who really did them the most good was the one who actually tried hard to teach, not the teacher that lavished lazy and insincere praise upon them.
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KARIN LIN-GREENBERG is the author of Faulty Predictions, which won the 2013 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and won gold in the Short Story category of ForeWord Reviews’INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards. Her stories have appeared in journals including the Antioch Review, Epoch, Five Chapters, and Kenyon Review Online. She teaches creative writing at Siena College in upstate New York. Please visit her online at karinlingreenberg.com.