A student in one of my first-year writing classes wrote an essay on the debate between PC and console gaming, and a damned good essay it was. It wasn’t a typical essay, though: he cited the advantages and disadvantages of each argument before explaining how ridiculous it was to argue these differences at all, and ended with a page full of happy gaming memories playing Call of Duty on couches with friends and trying to beat the original Super Mario Bros. on his grandmother’s old tube TV. It’s not about asserting one platform’s superiority, these anecdotes implied, but about the fun you have playing the game.
“So, I didn’t really get which side you were on,” a girl in our peer conference admitted. “Do you prefer PCs, or consoles?”
There were four of us in the classroom, the student who’d written the essay, his two groupmates, and me, the teacher running the show. The other girl in the group admitted to knowing nothing about video games and also being confused about what the writer’s opinion was, having completely missed the significance of the happy gaming memories. This placed me in an awkward position as the authority figure: if I felt the original ending forged a moment of great significance, but others had missed its meaning entirely, could the ending be considered effective?
I slouched in my plastic chairdesk and looked at the ending again: it was poignant, well-written, and evocative, while never quite spelling out in an obvious manner what the writer wanted to say—he was more subtle than that. Still, two out of three readers had weighed in with their confusion.
“As a writer,” I began when it came my moment to speak, “you have to consider your audience. Every reader reads differently, and every reader will pick up different aspects of a piece depending on their experiences. If something you’re trying to say isn’t coming across to two-thirds of the group [and here I let hang the unspoken implication that this was a very large percentage] then you might want to think about stating your point more clearly.”
And that was all—we then moved on to an essay about Christian stereotypes.
All day I thought about what I’d said, how I’d encouraged this young writer who’d written a damned good essay to compromise his vision because two classmates who’d never played a video game and had probably skimmed the essay the night before didn’t understand it. The ending was valuable for its subtlety—it had made readers realize for themselves how ridiculous the PC-console debate was—and here I was, an authority figure who held the power to grant this student a letter grade telling him to bow to the whims of a few readers he wasn’t even reaching out to. I hadn’t said this directly, but I’d pressured him to follow the mainstream—to do what everyone else wanted.
So I wrote the student an e-mail. It was a medium-length e-mail, sent late at night, with a sincerity I hadn’t shown in the classroom fourteen hours before. It said that he’d received some opinions from his readers, but that only he, the writer, could decide how valuable these opinions were. Did he want to write an essay that spelled things out in simple terms, or did he want his readers to think for themselves? It was a choice he had to make.
I felt a lot better after writing that, and the student did too—he replied saying he was glad to hear I’d liked his original ending, and that now that he had my approval he planned on keeping it. It was a victory for artists and independent thinkers everywhere.
I wonder now, though, what kind of path I’d set him on, and whether he was prepared to face the challenges of arguing for what you know is right despite the put-downs of the majority. I think about this path and how difficult it is, how many nagging voices come at us from groupmates and authority figures, how often these people tell us what we’re doing isn’t working or is just plain wrong. I think about how sticking to an unpopular vision is one of the most difficult choices in the world to make, but it’s where great art comes from, because the ideas that get remembered are always the ones that break free from the mainstream.
Fuck if it isn’t a difficult struggle, though.