The question is: can you teach writing? I enjoyed what the director of the famed Iowa’s Writer Workshop—one of the oldest in the country—had to say when the question was put to her on the CBS “Sunday Morning” show a while back. Her answer was to the effect that probably not.
Of course, she was standing next to a collection of banker boxes filled with writing samples from over two thousand applicants to the Workshop, so the question was pretty much moot when applied to the esoteric level at which the Iowa program functions. The folders in those boxes contained the work product of already very capable writers who weren’t seeking entry into a program that would teach them how to write. They were instead looking for ways to hone their already accomplished skills through intimate interaction with highly competent professors, colleagues, and peers—to share, collaborate, and be motivated to become even better writers.
This blog is not for them. It’s for the rest of us, who, somewhere between kindergarten and college, were supposed to be taught the art and craft of written and oral communications, but were not, or not very well. It’s also meant for those who can and do write but want sincerely to get better and realize that doing so is a process.
The failure of our educational system to teach writing has been long confirmed statistically by the grades high school graduates produce in their first year in college. But, the remedial writing classes they take teach academic writing, not the stuff most of us are interested in producing.
I discovered in teaching composition to middle school students that most teachers approach writing in the same way they do grammar—objectively: memorize the rules and apply them. Too often ignored are the creative facets critically necessary to produce good writing—the kind that grabs and holds a reader’s attention. To achieve this, the writer needs to embrace two key facets—contemplation and practice.
You can read a text on playing the piano, but you learn how to do it and get progressively better at it by playing the piano—a lot of piano. The same goes for writing. My private school students told me that they wrote more in one week in my classes than some of their public school friends did in a whole semester. That is why we have an abundance of incompetent writers entering into college.
We tend to think everything taught should be reducible to a “regurgitable” statement linked to a multiple choice response associated with a bubble to be filled in with a No. 2 pencil. There’s no time for thinking only proving you are knowledgeable, which is not the same thing as being skilled. Everything is reduced to something subject to an objectively testable assessment. As a result, college bound high school graduates can’t write for the simple reason that they rarely wrote. They were neither taught to write nor given the time to practice the skill. Education functions within an objective world. Writing, by its very nature, resides in the subjective.
I suspect the theorists get trapped in what constitutes teaching, too. Writing isn’t just about teaching rules and showing examples but having students experiment with their alternative applications. Writing deals more with sharing reactions and analyzing why something works or doesn’t or how it works and why. It’s very, very subjective. Education tends to want everything to be testable through multiple choice questions. If two plus two had twenty variable answers, depending on the context, think what mathematics would be like. It’d be like writing.
Writing is not a project or a unit in a grammar text; it’s a skill applicable to and should be practiced across the entire curriculum. Why confine the art and craft to a tiny corner of the classroom and a small segment of the school schedule when in post-graduation society, it applies to virtually everything we do. It is at the heart of education, of every subject: a book review in literature; a science report in biology; a description on how best to learn a new exercise program in physical education, why the youth of Vienna were accomplished musicians by age six. All these are subject-specific, subject-related topics that require the skills of effective communication. Writing should be incorporated into everything a student does because in real life communications is. Become a capable writer and you go to the head of the class in school, in college, in life.
Of course, this blog will focus primarily on fiction, but all writing is telling story, and the non-fiction writer who employs fiction techniques becomes the better biographer, historian, editorialist, because their writing is just plain more interesting. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals proves that point.
Writing requires practice, lots of it. This can’t be said enough. There is no trick to that. It demands discipline. Those who think otherwise are the Professor Harold Hills of communication. Hill, of “The Music Man” fame, was a traveling salesman who sold musical instruments and band uniforms and pitched his theory of “thinkology” as a way to learn to play in order to conceal his own musical incompetence.
This blog is committed to “do-ology.”
Consequently, I’m not going to present a bunch of lists or tricks of the trade. There are a few, such as using the active voice, which, by the way, will produce instant improvement in your writing, but mostly I hope to help instill a can-do sense and an understanding of the efforts required to improve the quality of your own writing. Like the doctor with the needle, I’m here to tell you that writing can cause a “little discomfort.” The success in writing doesn’t come from tricks or gimmicks, but becoming confortable with the realities of frustration and discomfort. I hope the ongoing entries to this blog help you do that. You do need to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. That man is you.
There are two key facets to writing—the mental and the physical. The mental deals with the elements of attitude and motivation (the self kind), discipline and perseverance, and priming and mining your creative side. The second involves the physical discipline associated with putting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard on a reasonably consistent schedule. We’ll discuss all this.
To learn writing through writing, you have to write. That’s why I never cared much for weekend writers’ workshops. Half of the attendees are there looking for some hidden magical formula to instant success that they hope the guru at the front of the class will impart. There isn’t any magical formula. You need to write that five hundred times on the blackboard of your mind. Those firmly committed to the belief that short cuts to success really exist, will spend a lot of time talking and little time producing. You’re wasting your time here.
There is another valuable tool for the writer to learn from—books. I discovered that by having my students analyze the structure of the novels we read to determine what the author was doing and why and whether it worked.
When I was a wet-behind-the-ears lawyer, a kindly judge pulled me aside and asked the simple question. “What do you want to be?” I answered, “The best trial lawyer around.” His advice was simple. Watch the attorneys I heard of or knew who were supposed to be damn good. Take a bit of this one and a bit of that one and play with the pieces. Select the bits and put them together in ways that work for you, and you’ll mold yourself and develop into the attorney you want to be, he advised. In the end, I did not win every case, but did win the ones I was supposed to lose because in the process of making me I learned a great deal about how the fact finders on the bench and in the jury box functioned, and perceived and reacted to the facts in any given case.
If you have a favorite writer, try to determine what it is about their writing that attracts your interest and attention. Why does it work? Why do you find their writing more compelling than the work of other authors? Then do the same for writers to whom some of your friends are dedicated—as a sort of on-going comparison test. The best complement I ever received as a teacher was when a student responded to my question about what they felt they learned over the term and he said, “I’ll never read a book in the same way again.” Learning comes from analysis and contemplation . . . and practice.
Be forewarned: don’t follow the market. Find books that trip your trigger. Too many times people read what they think they’re supposed to and develop a complex when a book doesn’t work for them. That’s why the how-to-write-a-best-seller-in-fourteen-days is for the pitchman to make money . . . off you. It has nothing to do with the effort necessary to achieve your goal to become a better writer.
Another anecdote. On my school’s reading list was a book entitled The Long Walk – The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, by Slavomir Rawicz. By the time I hit chapter three I was convinced Mr. Rawicz manufactured his own heroism and all the events and characters with whom he surrounded himself. The class read and analyzed and discussed and researched and from Mr. Rawicz’s fraud learned a great deal about writing. You can sometimes learn as much from bad as well as good writing! Good writing guides you toward the direction of what to do, bad writing in what to avoid.
Where to start? Read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird using the analytical approach. You’ll find it’s more than a great story; it’s a writing manual. Pay particular attention to how she blends description and action, intermixes narrative and dialogue, and paints visual pictures with very few words. Virtually every page entertains and teaches. I’ll address some examples in upcoming blogs. When Ms. Lee first tried to market Mockingbird, she was told that it came across as a collection of short stories. She worked on it for two more years. The Pulitzer committee thought she did a good job!
So, can you teach writing? Yes, but the best teacher is not necessarily the one in front of a classroom, but is in your hands or on your computer screen and in your head. Like the cabbie whose fare asked him if he knew how to get to Carnegie Hall responded: “Sure. Practice, practice, practice.”
That’s how you become a better writer. Well, actually, it helps if you really think about what you’re doing. Justify every sentence. When you can’t fix it, leave it out. It probably doesn’t belong anyway.