Poetics of Generosity

By Ron MacLean

Here is the essence of, and argument for, the poetics of generosity:

The mere fixing of flaws in a story draft does not lead to an outstanding piece of writing; on its own, it leads to sterile competence.

Looking to identify the nuggets that make a story draft alive, fresh, and unique – even if those nuggets are raw – is what helps a writer recognize where the power lies in a draft, and steer themselves to build on that.

The poetics of generosity posits simply this: as writing teachers, and as readers of fellow writers' work in progress, our approach should be to identify what resonates (for us) in a draft and help the writer understand how to do more of that. Place those strengths in a context by focusing on possibilities we see in the draft, and extrapolate what those possibilities might add up to (describe the story you see on the page, and the story it is pointing toward becoming) at least as much as focusing on holes, errors, and other problem areas.

On first blush, such a poetics can sound a little squishy. Soft. But I've come to believe it is the most rigorous – as well as the most generous – approach to teaching. Which is to say the approach that gives the writer the maximum information with which to improve his or her story with the minimum taint (here's the story I want to read based on your material; do it this way).

Consider a contrasting approach: the editorial board method, where teacher and fellow writers sit in judgment of a draft, and articulate the ways in which the story would fall short of their acceptance for publication. The result is, almost inevitably, a rejection letter (of the rare kind that enumerates, in detail, a story's shortcomings).

In this editorial board approach, the real energy is not in the discussion of a story's strengths, but in the articulation of its flaws. We all get to feel smart and rigorous, but I'll argue we're actually being lazy. The real work – and the more lively and valuable workshop – lies in giving a story the benefit of the doubt (what if this story was already the best version of itself? what are the moments that give us a glimpse of that, and how can the writer do more of them? what moments distract from that and why?) and to identify the possibilities toward which you see the writer reaching. It energizes the writer by honoring what they have done; it makes every reader better by having imagined yourself as best you can into another writer's vision, rather than merely ticking off a list of flaws from one's own pre-conceived notion of what the story is; it makes the workshop more energized because the primary focus is on possibility rather than on a tedious (and intellectually lazy) checklist of mostly obvious flaws.

The poetics of generosity is not a perfect approach, and to take it is to let go of the notion of yourself as the gatekeeper of good writing. I no longer view my job as enforcing good writing, but as empowering it. It's far more rewarding and, in my experience, far more fruitful for students.

The best moments in any good story are the ones we have difficulty explaining; that surprise us and, in the best cases, take our breath away. The poetics of generosity is an approach to critique – and to teaching – that trains both writer and reader to identify and cultivate such moments.

It's a little bit like magic. Like alchemy. It sounds a little nutty until you do it and watch it work. And won't stop "bad" writing – some people will persist fully empowered in bad habits and sloppy craft. But think about it – is our goal in workshop to stamp out bad writing, to enforce competence, or to encourage excellence?

I'll take the latter.

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About the Author

Ron MacLean is author of the story collections We Might as Well Light Something On Fire and Why the Long Face? and the novels Headlong and Blue Winnetka Skies. MacLean’s fiction has appeared widely in magazines including GQ, Narrative, Fiction International, and elsewhere. He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He holds a Doctor of Arts from the University at Albany, SUNY, and has been a proud member of team Grub since 2004.

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