On Writing

Of all the arts that the self-appointed custodians of culture claim are in jeopardy, none, so they say, is in as much danger as the art of writing. For many years I shared their despondency, and anticipated with them, in the absence of a clear remedy, the extinction, if not the appreciation, of this art. Until, however, I was hired to teach two sections of composition at Mass Bay Community College , I was never confronted by the sentences I complacently and arrogantly condemned. At last, I was obliged to give them (and their authors) a hearing. I’m delighted to say that my students can write. (If my sample size is representative, this means that I was for many years an insufferable windbag). Sure, their essays are full of the things that plague the work of young writers: run-on sentences, misplaced semicolons, misused words etc. These blemishes, however, are not disfiguring; they cannot obscure the fact that they have something to say. The difficulty, of course, is how a teacher coaxes what a student has to say into existence. How does he free up their instrument? Might I offer a few suggestions, with the disclaimer that they come from someone who has not yet finished his first semester of teaching writing?             The writing teacher must first of all be the most humble of teachers. He must acknowledge on the first day of class how difficult it is to write a decent sentence, let alone a brilliant one. We have experts in Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, and Economics. We do not have experts in writing, and any that purport to be so are either fools or charlatans. My only commandments are thus the tried and true ones: “omit needless words” and avoid clichés.             For students to write essays worth the reading, they have to want to write them. I remember groaning when I was assigned compare and contrast essays in high school. Students must not only be allowed, but encouraged to write about the things that animate them. Every school year, millions of formulaic papers are written analyzing poems, books, and plays. The budding writer who has just read The Catcher and the Rye does not want to analyze Salinger’s masterpiece; he wants to emulate and surpass it. Even an indifferent student would probably prefer writing a poem to analyzing one.             The only responsibility of a teacher of writing—and it is a large one—is to get his students to write better. When students see their writing class as a place where they will have to write essays which take a prescribed form, can we blame them if they rebel by producing hackneyed essays? A hackneyed assignment deserves a hackneyed response.             We should have students write letters to friends, letters to editors, and opinion pieces. We should have them write complaint and recommendation letters, restaurant reviews and tweets which are grammatically correct. We should have them write condolence letters and simple thank you notes. Let them compose emails in which they accept or reject a job offer. Let them come up with alternatives, while they are young, to corporate speak. In other words, they should learn to write well the things they will have to write after they graduate.                For their last essay, some of my students are writing a short story. I have no idea what to expect from them, but I’m reluctant to check their creativity by telling them exactly what is required. Should I tell them that a short story must have conflict and that there should only be two or three characters? I’m sure they know that, or at least have heard that. I hate listening to myself repeating things which have been shown to be untrue, and what rule regarding writing or storytelling has not been exploded? Even the sacrosanct rules of Strunk and White have their famous, canonized violators.               What then, do I tell my students, for I have to, of course, tell them something? I implore them to play with words and language, to resist the familiar combinations and come up with phrases and sentences that will, in ten years, be clichés. I’m happy to report that many of my students humor me, not, I think, altogether reluctantly.