On Writers’ Dilemmas (or, to whom should you listen?)

My teenage students were never shy about complaining. I could always count on rolled eyes and sideways glances over an assigned story or book that they found challenging.

“Tell me what you didn’t like about it,” I’d say.

“Boring!” was the inevitable reply.

My teenage students were never shy about complaining. I could always count on rolled eyes and sideways glances over an assigned story or book that they found challenging.

“Tell me what you didn’t like about it,” I’d say.

“Boring!” was the inevitable reply.

I would ask questions that I hoped would lead to a clearer, more analytical response, but mostly what they wanted was to be excused from the assignment. (Like that was ever going to happen.)

But after what usually took a fair amount of time, glib adolescent responses like “it was dumb” or “I just didn’t get it” would lead to a discussion that (usually) helped them understand why they didn’t get it.

And almost inevitably, the reasons boiled down to insufficient prior knowledge and/or misguided expectations.

The easiest way for me to explain this is with a couple of examples: The Diary of Anne Frank made little sense to those of my eighth graders who couldn’t understand why the Franks simply didn’t go to the airport and leave. That was when I knew  a brief history of the anti-Semite culture during World War II was essential before we began reading the book. In other words, a little prior knowledge went a long way in helping my students understand the culture of the time.

In the spring of that year, teaching Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to ninth graders opened my eyes as to why I had to make sure my students’ expectations about the play were not off-the-wall. More than a few of the boys expected the play to be all sword fights and posturing, only because they’d heard the play opened with a sword fight and that I was planning on teaching them choreographed sword fighting. So of course, with that expectation in mind, they continued to read and they continued to be increasingly confused.

By this point, you may be convinced that my purpose in this blog is to teach you how to teach. And you would be wrong, because up to this point I have set you up to expect just that. But my real purpose is to try to assuage the agony of writers–myself included–who try to address the needs of all their  potential readers.

And this is not easy an dilemma for a writer to solve. My students’ objections were solvable with some concrete information. But sophisticated readers are different. Their expectations have been honed over years of reading.

So, what’s a writer to do? Whose needs does she address?

I wish I had a definitive answer. The best I can offer is this: get feedback from readers you trust. Pay attention to anything that suggests a lack of clarity. Fix that. Then go with your gut. It’s your story…now write it.