In early 2011 I enrolled in a Postgraduate Certificate in Writing via distance education. In theory, I should have completed it by now: they were only four units and, frankly, its contents did not appear to be either too time-consuming or highly intellectually-challenging.
The first unit I attempted was called ‘Critical Friends: The Real and Virtual Support of Writers’. It was described as an exploration of “how 'critical friends' can enrich others' writing skills and their own insights into the processes of writing”. On paper, the description was quite appealing, and I was looking forward to engaging in some robust reflection on writing and critical thinking.
In any case, I was working fulltime and had as well numerous translations to do throughout the term. Needless to say, I was unable to put in the necessary effort to achieve something. It was never my intention to seek a High Distinction grade, yet I did manage to read most of the lectures and tutorial materials thoroughly, and I even found other writings, which I found to be actually more engaging that those suggested by the course convenors.
We were asked to write something short and submit it to a ‘critical friend’ for feedback, and then write a reflection on what ways this feedback had led us to rethink and/or rewrite the piece. I wrote a short story called ‘By the sea’, which you can read in Hypallage, the magazine of the MWAA. In turn, we would also provide feedback for our critical friend’s writing. It should have been quite straightforward, really. But nothing is these days. [Note: Perhaps it might be a good idea to read the story before you keep reading below, but I leave that to you.]
Then I received my assessment report. Rather than focusing on my writing, the assessor chose to provide some free, unrequested psychological advice: “Your critical reflection is a thorough consideration of [Name suppressed]’s report, good work. You re-think your text with reference to the critical friendship experience. [New paragraph] I am very sorry to hear about the tragic loss of your young daughter, Jorge, and that this story is about those circumstances. It is extremely difficult to write about such a traumatic and recent event, Jorge, and I want you to bear this in mind. You may need to let a lot more time pass. The loss of your daughter will always suffuse your writing because she will always be a part of you and perhaps these events need less direct attention and a more indirect approach”.
I was puzzled, I felt perplexed. “Extremely difficult?” What would they know? They may think, “wow, it must be extremely difficult to write about this subject”. But it never occurred to them that the fact is, it is also very necessary. Actually, it is essential for anyone traumatised by loss and a catastrophe to be given the chance to tell their story.
I was of course baffled that someone who did not know me at all seemed to be advising me not to write my story. I did lodge a complaint. It was dealt with as best as could be in the circumstances. End of the story.
In the last eighteen months I have developed an interest in the interactions of grief and writing. I have done very little research as yet, but I can assure you that there is a lot of interest out there. The works by Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates and Maggie MacKellar, for example, have raised a great deal of attention among scholars in general.
I have now and then thought about my ‘extremely’ disappointing experience. I have come to realise that what truly hurt was that the assessor resorted to clichés and hackneyed phrases: I have underlined the sentence where the real problem was. I now believe that was what led me to take the immediate decision to discontinue my studies.