Yesterday, I opened class by asking my students what makes writing good. I’m not entirely surprised by the results that I got, but they are telling.
I expected every section to mention description, but only three out of four did. The odd one out did mention world-building, though, so perhaps description is still represented.
But what every class mentioned was this: relatability. And yes, I know the use of that term is debated, but everyone knows what it means here–something that can be related to.
And before you go off about how young people today expect everything to cater to them, let me stop you before you go through that door. Because they also universally agreed that writing should transport them to something outside themselves, although the terms they used to describe this need varied, because perhaps we don’t have a good word for it when applied more universally (for genre fiction, we might call it escapism or world building, but what do we call it for nonfiction?).
What’s going on here is very complex, actually, and I think it’s a good example of a generative tension in writing, a set of contrasting values that must be held in balance with regard to the needs of the situation. And, indeed, every class noted a few things that are in tension with each other–the need for deep description in balance with the need to be concise, the need for advanced diction in balance with the need for clarity and simplicity, etc.
So what does it mean to have both relatability and alterity in writing? In repeating back what my students were saying to them, I offered an example:
Consider, for instance, Ray Bradbury’s short story from the Martian Chronicles, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” about what is effectively (in modern terms) a smart home carrying on its smart home business with no residents left. This story has no living characters, unless you count the hapless dog who wanders in and dies, but the dog is treated more as an event than a character. And yet, the story is “relatable”–there is a deep human connection in the story. The house is the character, and we can see reflected in it our own fears of being useless, empty, and purposeless, just running about our routines with no meaning.
In Bradbury’s story, we have a balance of alterity and relatability. The house is something entirely different from ourselves. Yet it is also a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected clearly.
This human connection with the outside is exactly what my students were getting at. They’re not saying that they want to read only about people like themselves, experiences they already understand. They’re saying they want to connect with other experiences, other lives, other people.
And, honestly, I’m proud of them for saying that. After all, we were talking about how to write a personal essay, and isn’t that the whole point of the personal essay?