A couple of years ago, Nora got me a wonderful birthday present: a three-hour guided walk through the property behind our house with two local naturalists. My understanding of nature is pretty much limited to gross categories—tree, shrub, rock, stump, bird, mud. But they were able to help me see the vast array of plants on our land, were surprised themselves to find a black birch, were able to see where the land had been disturbed by human intervention and probably how long ago. Where I saw a wilderness, they saw patterns and histories and occasional, delightful surprises.
The environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan wrote a book thirty years back about people’s cognitive experiences of nature. In it, they had a number of interesting paired ideas that they used to help them make sense of our cognitive processes about the places we find ourselves.
One of them had to do with the “legibility” of an environment, and how that leads us to anticipate what was coming next. If an environment is illegible, we aren’t able to make any rules about how it works, and so what might come next is a matter of confusion. But if the environment we see is legible—that it, it has recognizable patterns that we understand—then what might come next is seen as mystery, an intriguing set of possibilities that we can’t fully predict but still look forward to.
But of course, an environment isn’t legible or illegible on its own. It is legible or illegible to someone, and that judgment will differ based on prior knowledge of similar experiences, based on cultural values, based on language and behavior patterns. I used to talk all the time in my research about how teenagers’ environments absolutely have rules, but grown-ups just don’t know what they are, so they think those places are chaotic or nonsensical.
Trust me, whenever some group of people does one thing and not another, there’s a reason. Just because we don’t know what it is doesn’t mean it’s not there. But patterns are only legible once we name them and use them.
I raise this idea today in light of the current book I’m reading, Matthew Salesses’s wonderful Craft in the Real World. We talked a little about it yesterday, about how creative writing “workshops” unwittingly reinforce some patterns and prohibit others. He discusses the ways in which the fiction of different genres and different cultures represent insurmountable challenges for readers trained to workshop (yes, it’s a verb, too…<sigh>) in the traditional way. It’s an important book that I think will help a vast community of writing teachers reconsider their choices.
But, as is often the case with books about complex social issues, I’m compelled by his diagnosis while being less compelled by his prescriptions. He lays out a variety of alternative modes for presenting, reviewing, commenting upon and accepting the comments of others; individual readers may find some of those useful, others alien. But in his own example syllabus, which I find generous and hope-filled, there’s still a reversion to seemingly neutral terms like agency and conflict and stakes and tone. But as Salesses himself argued in the first half of the book, those things aren’t universally received, aren’t even universally necessary to fictions of different genres and cultures. These are all patterns that are only legible once we’ve named them and used them.
I think maybe all we have is the ability to seek out people who share our patterns; to learn other patterns as a matter of choice and breadth; and to be able to explain our own patterns to anyone else who seems curious. And we need to understand that when our work doesn’t excite someone else, it’s as likely to be a simple send/receive error as a matter of craft and talent. The writer and reader have different patterns, different rules, different expectations.
This raises an opportunity and a problem for creative writing as an academic discipline. The opportunity is for all of us—faculty and students alike—to name the patterns we recognize and value, and to become more fluent in a broader array of patterns. The problem is that it leaves us susceptible to a radical relativism, a fallback to “it’s all good, man” that allows us to insist on the quality of our work and to blame the insufficiency of our readers to “get it.”
If reading and writing are modes of communication, then their quality resides in our mutual satisfaction with that communication. What one reader finds “clear” another finds “dull.” What one reader finds “challenging” another finds “bewildering.” What one reader finds “reassuring” another finds “rote.”
So maybe what creative writing programs should teach in class is the identification of patterns in fiction, and the self-identification of the patterns we most value as readers. And then the work of actually writing and judging and improving our own fiction comes when we’ve found our tribe; it happens away from classrooms, outside the curriculum, as acts of communication and friendship and love freely shared among friends.