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Art and Competitiveness

Trust my 10th graders to ask a really provocative question.  We have a local creative writing conference and contest at Mesa State College in a couple of weeks.  I'm giving extra credit to my students who take the poems they are writing right now as a class assignment and use them as an entry for the writing contest.

One of my kids asked, "How can we make our poems competitive."


So this is what I put up on the board for what the judges will be looking for.  It is, of course, also a description of what I think makes writing artistic.  The overlap of art into competitiveness is inevitable but not complete.  This is an interesting way of looking a story writing too, where "competitive" becomes "publishable."

  • Unique
  • Specific
  • -   details and appeals to the senses
  • -   individual incident instead of summary
  • Sound (for poetry, all the sound features like rhythm, rhyme, consonance, onomatopoeia, etc., but also the language working hand in hand with the content by emphasizing the impact)
  • Language
  • Connections
  • Synthesis
Here's a brief description of what I meant my each:

Unique:  The judges respond to fresh treatment of ideas.  They will not like a familiar idea phrased in a familiar way.  I think, generally, this is what a good story should do too, although I know a lot of stories look like rehashed versions of old ideas.  Some readers like the familiar.  A poetry contest isn't quite the same as what is published in short stories.

Specific:  The poems that win focus on details and make appeals to the senses so the reader has a chance to participate in the performance of the poem's meaning.  They relate tightly focused incidents.  Powerful short stories do this too.  We don't read to find out what the characters feel or think; we read to for a moment feel or think those things ourselves.

Sound:  A poem is on one level all about speech.  Even if it is never read aloud, clumsy phrasings, ill-considered clashing of sounds, and distracting rhythms will detract from the performance of the poem.  Story writing is this way too.  It's why so many instructors suggest writers read their work out loud as part of the editing process.

Language:  Words are what we use to build poems (and stories).  A significant part of the power is in word choice and word arrangement (diction and syntax).  The language should have an interest all on its own.  Part of this takes us back to what I said about "unique" above, but it's also about recognizing the medium.  A song is not just the tune; it's about how it's played.  A story is not just the plot, it's about how it's told.

Connections:  The competitive poems are hardly ever about just one thing.  The poet and critic, John Cirardi said that poems are essentially "duplicitous," appearing to be about one thing but being about something else, like Frost's "Two Roads in a Yellow Wood Diverged" appears to be about a choice while hiking, but it's also about choices in life.  A good story will also make connections, where the events in the story reveal or explore a larger issue or question.

Synthesis:  Everything has to work together. 

That was my conceptional breakthrough for the day.  I think I helped the kids.  Comments are welcome.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 12th, 2008 09:28 am (UTC)
That's a very useful insight. It hadn't occurred to me to equate artistic success with competitiveness.

There is one distinct difference, I think, between art for its own sake and art in a competetive settings.

The former is a bit like hanging a painting in an empty room. There's nothing else to look at, nothing to compare it with. It succeeds or fails based entirely on its own composition.

The latter is like hanging the same painting in a room crowded with artwork. No matter how successful the individual composition, it must now be sufficiently distinctive to make it stand out from the crowd and get the judge's attention.

This is essentially the same principle you discuss under the category "Unique". But in competition, I think it carries more relative weight.
Feb. 12th, 2008 02:15 pm (UTC)
Good analogy. I'll give it some more thought.
Feb. 12th, 2008 10:40 am (UTC)
Very interesting stuff, Jim. I've never seen it expressed quite like this before, but you've managed to encapsulate neatly rather a lot of writing advice. If you have no objection, I'm going to print it out as a reminder to myself.
Feb. 12th, 2008 02:17 pm (UTC)
No objection at all. I've never expressed the thought this way before. I like the different perspective it gave me. Also, you might check nancyfulda's comment above, which I thought added to the discussion.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )