I used to think of myself as a rather intelligent person. Then I encountered the "critical writing" papers required in graduate school. I feel the same way I did when I first took up golf - frustrated. I repeatedly whacked the ball unskillfully in the wrong direction and, after a bit, gave up. Simply put, I didn't know what I was doing.
Law school trained me to think in a particular way. I studied legal history, learned the language and conventions. When I began to practice, I was able to base my arguments on centuries of case law that I had studied.
Not so with literature. While I have read a great deal, I have not studied it. In studying journalism in undergraduate school, I took one lit course entitled, “The Literature of Men and Women,” in which I learned that male writers (we read mostly Hemingway) are pigs who degrade women. Go figure!
I read many books while studying with Natalie Goldberg, but we were more concerned with sensory detail and the overall way an author structured a book. Natalie liked for us to stay with the author’s own words which she referred to as “the author’s breath.” She didn’t believe in analyzing things. She wanted us to experience them fully. I learned a great deal about how to write, but I didn't learn how to think in the way that graduate school requires.
My MFA Advisor, Aimee Liu, has now bounced both of my attempts at a short critical writing paper back to me. She asks questions I don't understand, suggests comparisons to books I haven't read, and talks in words I've never heard before. I’m not (yet) trained to think that way. I don’t know the canons of literature, haven’t read (not to mention studied) most of the classics, don’t know the lingo, and don’t know how to figure out the literary techniques a writer might use to convey her message.
I'm going to ask if reading either How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster or Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose would help. It feels like cheating, but I don't have time over the December break to go back to undergrad and pick up the literature courses Ohio University didn't require. If all else fails, there’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Critical Reading by Amy Wall.