How do I tell Anne Tyler she sucks?

I’m afraid I did a bad thing. I passed off some of Anne Tyler’s writing as my own. But I was curious and figured, what the heck? Everybody else is doing it. I hear plagiarism is really trendy these days. Okay, seriously now, here’s how it went down:

Recently, I took a writing class to give my fiction a bump. I’d never taken a writing class before, and had heard good stuff about this one. I knew for sure I’d learn some things and hopefully get inspired, so I gave it a shot. The teacher started out by railing against all the other writing courses and books and methods out there. He said he hated how they all taught that their way was the only way. Then guess what? Get ready for some literary irony here: he taught that his way was the only way. I know, right? He did pull me aside after the second class, when he’d had a chance to read some of my work. He knew right off I wasn’t a beginner, which was nice, but after the initial love-in, he proceeded to eviscerate every scrap of writing I turned in.

Now lest you think I’m overly sensitive to writing critique, I want to defend myself.  I’ve been getting critique for many years and have developed a business-like approach. If it helps the story, I take it. If it doesn’t, then I don’t. Obviously every writer wants to be told how great their work is, that their words sing from the page. My philosophy on critique is, if it hurts, then it’s probably true. In other words, if the critique stings, then it must mean on some level, you agree with it. I’ve been telling this to my kids for years; the only way someone’s words can hurt you (and I believe words can hurt waaay more than sticks and stones) is if you believe them.

His critique of my writing didn’t hurt my feelings the way true criticism usually does, when I know I need to go back in and make the changes. Although he did make some valid points, most of it flat out didn’t make a whole lot of sense, and a lot of it centered on how I wasn’t following his formulaic method for writing fiction.

I pulled out copies of all my favorite novels, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Breathing Lessons, I Know This Much is True. I mean, Irving, Tyler, Lamb—these guys are the best. My idols. Surely they must be following his secret formula for literary success? It was then I got an idea. One of my wonderful, awful ideas. I copied word for word eight random passages from Anne Tyler’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Breathing Lessons, and handed it in. (Full disclosure: since he already knew my writing style, I changed the formatting of hers. She writes big, long paragraphs. I don’t. So I broke her paragraphs down. I also changed the character names and said it was “a few pages from another novel.”)

Yeah, I know. It was a bitchy thing to do. But I learned more from that exercise than the whole rest of the class. Copying her words, it felt like I was channeling her style, so different from mine and then simultaneously, weirdly, not so very different underneath it at all. I learned there’s no precise formula for writing a great story. Sure there are rules and guidelines and I suppose you have to know the rules before you can break them, but every great story is as individual as the writers that wrote them. And when Teacher eviscerated Pulitzer Prize winning Anne in the same way he had me, I felt vindicated. If in his eyes I’m such a terrible fiction writer, at least I’m in very good company.


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  • Where was this class? Did you tell the teacher? Man or woman? You have whetted my appetite!

  • In reply to Janet Dahl:

    You want to get your writing eviscerated!?!
    I have to say, it was never my intention to embarrass the teacher, but just to make myself understand and perhaps feel a little better, I guess, so I didn't give the name of the course. It's in the city though. It was a man and I didn't tell him either. I'll email you the info, if you'd like?

  • Whoa, Kim. I love this.

  • Wow! You have guts lady! What is the old saying? Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach?

  • I'm no teacher...but I love your writing. I am glad you found vindication no matter what the method. BTW...I'd give the teacher a going away present after the last class...Anne Tyler's winning novel :)

  • Thanks for all the nice comments everyone! Looks like I may have struck a writerly chord. I'd love to hear if anyone else out there has had a similar experiences with writing classes...

  • This guy sounds like an assclown.

  • So....did you ever tell this teacher what you did or will he have to read it here?

  • In reply to ResuMAYDAY:

    No. I didn't get this critique back until the end of the final class and didn't feel like making a special effort to tell him what he'd done. As I said, my intention wasn't to embarrass him as much as it was to make me feel better.

  • In reply to KimStrickland:

    If you don't tell him, you're not helping to solve the problem.

    I'm glad you feel better about yourself, but what are you doing to help educate HIM (and his boss) about being a better teacher?

    Sometimes it should be more than just what you can do to massage your own ego. Sometimes it is better to put your pride down and so something to fix a problem.

    Otherwise you're guilty of allowing the problem to spread to others which, in my book, is worse.

    Apathy FTL.

  • In reply to JediMaster1138:

    I couldn't agree more.

  • In reply to ResuMAYDAY:

    I guess I'm just too apathetic to tell him?
    It's his own school, so he IS the boss, and after spending weeks in the class, I did learn he didn't listen to much of what anyone said, unless they were quoting from HIS book, so therefore I really don't think little old me telling him anything would make him change.
    BTW WTF is FTL?

  • In reply to KimStrickland:

    embarrassing him would make ME feel a whole lot better...but maybe i'm just older and bitchier than you :/

  • In reply to undrgrndgirl:


  • This sounds like the episode of "The Partridge Family" where Lori becomes a substitute teacher at Danny's school and gives him a hard time. He then copies a passage from "The Red Badge of Courage" to see how Lori would criticize his writing. Of course, she reams him out on front of the class.

    Too bad your writing teacher didn't watch more television. ;)

  • In reply to GeekToMe:

    Oh, I remember that episode! Lori was such a bitch in it, I remember being scared of her.

  • In reply to Jimmy Greenfield:

    I don't remember that episode at all, and I watched that show religiously!
    I swear on my Partridge Family lunchbox I would NEVER, ever plagiarize an idea from Danny Partridge. And Jimmy Greenfield, don't you ever say anything mean about Lori Partridge in my comment thread again.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to KimStrickland:

    She's not kidding. I can verify that she owned a Partridge Family lunchbox :)

  • Years ago, a famous, critically acclaimed writer submitted a manuscript, under a pseudonym, to several publishers. It may have been Jerzy Kozinski, but I can't remember exactly. Anyway, he got all these terrible rejection letters. When he revealed his real identity, the same publishers fell all over each other trying to get rights to his book! Personally, I think your teacher found your writing TOO good (ie, better than his) and wanted to take you down a peg. And speaking of plagiarism, a close friend of mine was accused of this during her freshman year of college when she submitted a term paper. This was long before the internet. Her prof said he just didn't believe a freshman was capable of that level of writing. She had to produce all her sources and prove that she didn't plagiarize....she was a scrupulously honest person, and also a very good writer. She was offended and somewhat traumatized by the accusation. Unfortunately, some of my peers who now teach at the college level echo the same sentiment. And the truth is, the people who think this way are usually lousy writers themselves and just cannot believe anyone else can string words together into a cogent sentence.

  • In reply to icefalcon58:

    I remember hearing that story! I also seem to remember hearing a similar story about another writer who copied an award winning novel from the forties or fifties, turned it in to several agents and received terrible rejection letters as well. It's a tough business. And of course as writers, we all want to consistently hone our craft, which can't be done without critique, both from ourselves and/or outside sources. I think the trouble comes in when the critique comes with poison on the end of the pen.
    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment!!

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