Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Master Classes

If you read much of Rose-coloured last spring, you likely came across notes on my time teaching creative writing to grade 10s and 11s. From this, I learned so much--nothing makes you critical of your own assumptions, limits, and biases like trying to impart them to cranky teens. Every time they questioned me, I questioned myself, and discovered either renewed confidence in my ideas about writing, or renewed eagerness to come up with some better ones.

This spring and summer, I found another way to shake myself out of my habitual thinking and look at things in new ways: judging. When I was asked sit on the jury for Journey Prize 21 I was honoured and terrified--the nominated stories were selected by journal editors as the best they'd published that year! So they were all going to be *pretty* good, and how finely could I discriminate? How could I choose between one very good story and another without simply falling back on my own ingrained prejudices about what I *prefer* in a story, but is not always perfectly coincident with what's *good*.

By reading really carefully and slower than is my wont, by taking notes, by rereading, rereading and rereading. Also, it turns out, by talking. The Journey committee deliberations had some email components, but also a long day in a room with nothing but a pretty view, a lot of delicious food, and stories to discuss. When I sat down with Camilla Gibb and Lee Henderson, I thought that it would be too indimidating to speak up, and yet too irresponsible to the stories not to. So I talked a little, and they were warm and collegial. So I talked some more, and though we didn't always agree, we did always take others' points seriously and honestly, and everyone was willing to return to a story and try to see someone else's reading of it.

And I did too--it was shocking, the way school is shocking. You walk into class having done the readings and formed your opinions, and you aren't even wrong--there's just another layer, another dimension, that the prof (or fellow students) introduce and make you go back and reread and say, "Oh!" I think we were all able to provide these new layers on different stories for each other, and that was what was so amazing and educational--this 360 view on published stories (we do this all the time in workshop, but that's with an eye to the story being rewritten).

The next time I was asked to be a story contest juror, I was much more eager and less trepidacious, and it was another wonderful experience even though, as it turned out, I didn't actually get to do it. I was merrily reading and note-taking for the University of Toronto alumni short story contest when a story I recognized popped up in the second round. As said story progressed to the shortlist, I realized I had to recuse myself from the jury.

By then, though, I had some pretty strong attachments to the stories and was depressed that I'd miss out on what was sure to be a fascinating discussion about who should be a finalist and who should win. I'd also heard through the grapevine that the discussion was to be held at a really good restaurant. So I offered to be a silent audience, mouth opened only to put food in (it really was excellent). Everyone agreed, thank goodness, because this was a whole other education: to listen to the intelligent dialogue and short-story dissections of Andrew Pyper, Lee Gowan and Allyson Latta without the burden of self-consciousness. I had a very solid grasp on the stories, but since I didn't have to be articulating that grasp every minute, I was able to listen ever more deeply to what the other judges thought and felt about the stories. Once again, we were not always in accord, but everyone presented their thoughts with respect for even stories that didn't work for them, and with a willingness to see things from another perspective, should one be offered.

By the time it came around to adjudicating This Magazine's Great Canadian Literary Hunt, short-story side, I felt like I was gaining some expertise (of course, not everyone would think it brilliant time management to agree to sit on three story juries in six months, but honestly, how do people say no to these cool opportunities???) This time it was an e-discussion amongst Dennis Bolen, Kate Sutherland and myself. Again, a vibrant mix of reading styles and expressive styles, and a great openness to very different readings of the same story (although this time, sadly, nothing to eat). Again, a feeling that the other judges had opened up the stories for me, making me read even those I loved in new ways, and giving me ways into stories that hadn't previously spoken to me.

You can see the results of the UofT and This contests in those magazines' last issues of the year, and you can see read the Journey Prize longlist starting next week, when the book is for sale. You can also come see me and Camilla Gibb announce the shortlist for the Journey, tomorrow at 10am at Ben McNally Books, along with a few others of the Writers' Trust Awards shortlists.

Or you can do none of these things and simply trust me on this: people are writing really amazing short stories out there, and they don't seem likely to run out of ways of surprising us with the form anytime soon. And people are thinking about short stories out here, too, and we don't seem likely to be run out of ways of being surprised, either.

All the lies in the book


frede said...

Announcing the finalists! how exciting! I look forward to hearing about it.

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