Saturday, January 5, 2008

On Writing

I am an English teacher. To some I might represent their favorite memories of high school classes; to others I was the instructor of the one period in the day they loathed more than any other. If they could have found some way to take triple gym and an extra session just sitting in the principal's office pretending to smile in order to avoid English, they would have. But fortunately these are the few rather than the many, for English (unlike math or science or even history) is a "touchy-feely" subject, and as such it is so broad and so darned subjective in approach that, given four years of opportunity, you're almost bound to match up with a teacher who turns you on to one aspect of it or another.

I'll save for some other time why I do this. Tonight I want to talk about the part that turns on the most. It isn't the literature, though of course I love that element. I'm especially at home in a poetry unit or having a grand time with a play or trying to help junior honor students find the heart and soul of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Can't get enough of that stuff, but that's not it. And it sure is not grammar, though at least half of the people I meet suddenly find it necessary to watch their grammar around me as if, in a normal conversation, I am going to whip out my red pen and mark the very air on which their words float.

No, my passion, my raison d'etre in my work, is writing. About fifteen years ago, my school adopted a very forward-thinking approach called a Writing Workshop that emphasized creative writing and teacher-student conferences and peer review. Since that time, our students' writing ability has simply skyrocketed. We see it every day in class work, we have the empirical evidence in test scores, and we have the annual anecdotal evidence from middle-of-the-pack students from our classes who email us that they are far and away the best writers in freshman comp classes at college. I love working with kids on developing their voice and finding ways to express themselves. And the Writing Workshop has uncovered, for me, a Great Secret.

Writing done for oneself is a tremendous teaching tool.

OK, maybe not such a secret, but it runs counter-intuitive to most English teachers' mindsets. We think analysis analysis analysis, not poems and short stories and personal expression. How can one teach structure, we insist, when things are free form?

To that I say this: That's exactly the point! If kids believe in what they are writing and want to write it and improve it, they will do so, and if they are open to hearing new ways to work with it, they will be learning structure by working with things that they didn't even know had any! And what a lesson that is: recognizing how much structure goes into a good poem or story or even personal essay and how careful the writing must be to get the message across is a value that filters through to other kinds of writing. (Read: analysis.)

So I have made it my goal to emphasize--even to over-emphasize--the creative writing in all of my classes, and my students probably do more writing than they ever thought possible. But the class in which it all comes to a boil is the senior class called Creative Writing, an elective course for those who want total immersion, and (obviously) my favorite course to teach. Each year I begin that course with a letter to my students, challenging them to think about why they write and why they are there. Tonight I'm sharing that letter with all of you.

Dear Creative Writers-to-be,

The start of a new semester. Like a blank page, as Stephen Sondheim said, “so many possibilities.”

Where will we be nine months from now? (OK, I know: the answer is simple. I will be grading junior exams and you will be at the senior breakfast. But I meant the question metaphysically, not literally.) Where will we be as writers? There are as many potential answers to that question as there are hairs on my head (including my face). Each of you, individually, could go any number of ways. You might be where you are now, wherever that might be. Or you might be somewhere far removed, heading for some new understanding of yourself as a writer.

What are we doing here?

Of course, this is a question that philosophers have pondered unceasingly since before the time of Aristotle, but this time the question is slightly more focused: why are we in this class? If it were an ordinary class, the answer might be "Because it fit into my schedule" or "I wanted to be in the same class as Heather" or some such extraordinary evidence of an intelligent mind at work trying to better itself. But we all know that Creative Writing is NOT an ordinary class. It is not a class for everyone. So why, indeed, are we here?

The answer(s) to that are probably as varied as the individuals in this room. Look around: who are these people? What do you really know about them? What, in fact, do you really know about anyone? What do you even know about yourself? If you are pressed, you could probably come up with a description of yourself, including the things you like to do, the kinds of people with whom you like to associate, your favorite foods, colors, classes, sports, books, movies, records, plays, poems, cars, flowers, vegetables, insects, diseases, dental techniques, and math problems. But is this list really a summary of who you are? Or is there something else, something not nearly so tangible, that defines you?

Writing is one means by which we come into contact with ourselves, the selves whom even we are not certain how to describe. A thought slipping untidily through your mind, a stray remark made in conversation by a friend, a mural on a brick wall hurriedly glimpsed while passing on a train, an image somehow plastered into your head of a moment you thought you had forgotten: anything that comes into our minds defines us. And it is these things that are best explored through art. For some, art is paint and canvas, broad strokes or barely perceptible dots and gossamer threads of color. For others, it is the making and blending of sounds to create sensations of imagery without words or pictures. For those in this room, at least one means of creating art is the written word.

But why do we write?

Do you write for release? Is there something about the act of writing that frees you from the tensions of the day and invites you into some other world where, at least temporarily, you might experience total freedom? Or do you write for pleasure? Perhaps there exists for you a sheer joy in creating images and ideas and complicated characters that never existed before you made them exist. Sondheim, in his musical Sunday in the Park with George, shows us the pure pleasure of composition as his main character explains why he works all night long: "Look! I made a hat where there never was a hat."

There might be other reasons, as well, why we write. Perhaps it's a pleasure derived from a feeling of power: here are entire worlds over which you have dominion. A character, a plot element, a setting is not working? Change it. Delete it. Alter even its most essential nature. It is your creation, yours. Do with it as you will. You are its god.

Whatever reason we write, we continue to do so only as long as we enjoy it and can convince ourselves that we have something to say. And I assume that this is why we are gathered here in this room: we all believe that we have something to say, we all wish to explore better how to say it, and we want to have an audience to say it to.
This class is a means to achieve these ends.

Here we can all try to help each other. We can explore and examine interesting or unusual means of expressing ideas. We can discuss how it is possible to express complex emotions and thoughts in writing without sounding presumptuous or maudlin. And we can, perhaps, figure out how best to express our own muse. Sounds like hard work. But art is never work. As Sondheim puts it, "Work is what you do for is what you do for yourself."

Are you a writer? Can you be one?

Exactly what does that mean, anyway? Some student discussions of writing that I have seen suggest an almost pious reverence of writing, whatever writing is, and the notion that it is, somehow, something sacred, a gift to be treasured and not treated cavalierly. It is a nice attitude to have, as long as it does not go too far. “Too far” means the distance you travel when you convince yourself that, if you can’t write brilliantly, it is not worth writing at all. Nonsense. Not everything we write is perfect, just as not everything we eat is perfect. You wouldn’t starve yourself to death because you couldn’t find any food that you liked, would you? Yet we do that with our writing: we starve ourselves because we don’t like the flavor.

An imperfect analogy, you protest. Food is essential for living, you say, so of course we will eat, even if it means eating something distasteful or disgusting to survive. (People lost in the jungle have been known to survive for weeks on diets of grubs and leaves; this makes sense, I think: the apes survive quite nicely on a similar diet, so why shouldn’t men? In other dire circumstances, people have been known to eat just about anything, including other people, to survive.)

But you are wrong. Yes, eating is essential. But so is writing. Eating is necessary for the body. Writing--or some form of self-expression--is necessary for the soul. How can we claim to be any different from apes if we ignore, if we fail to cultivate and utilize, the very aspects of our nature that allow us to rise above them? (And no, I am not speaking about opposable thumbs.) The late Samuel Beckett wrote existentialist, Theatre of the Absurd plays in which he attempted to illustrate how far man has fallen; no, how far he has slipped, for “fallen” at least implies some progression, even if it is negative. “Fallen” implies some effort, some aspiration, some desire: perhaps we fail to achieve it, but we fail trying. But Beckett’s plays (like Waiting for Godot) argue that we have only slipped: through no effort of our own, through no real attempt to create anything, through, in fact, that very lack of trying, we have slipped into a lifelong coma that threatens not only our lives, but our souls. We have begun to exist instead of live; our lives have broken apart into meaningless little plays that we repeat ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Never any original thoughts, never any attempt to create, never any attempt to break out of the mold.

Damn depressing, right?

Of course, Beckett’s nihilistic visions of the world and society don’t exactly represent mainstream thinking. But they do represent the original thoughts and ideas of a man who was not afraid to write down his original thoughts and ideas, no matter how out of this world they might have seemed. And they have been the basis for philosophical discussion, thus far, for over a generation, with assurance that many future generations will find them similarly exciting.

No Becketts in here? No Austens? No Shakespeares? No Dickinsons? No Millers? No Salingers?

So what? Why do you need to be one of those people to have something to say and to say it? Not everyone can be a great writer; it requires artistry and vision, two qualities that are hard to come by and cannot be learned. But everyone can be a writer, because all that requires is a pen or a keyboard. And, if properly motivated, you might surprise yourself: there may be a lot of very interesting, very original thoughts in you waiting for the opportunity to come out and kiss the sun.

--'til later,

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it's your hair that i notice first
streaked with morning
it frames your face
you lying there eyes closed
soft breath not quite there
i follow its path as it bends the sheet
and i can touch you there
touch what i feel is you
in the spark of daylight
you'll rise
pull on the wrinkled shirt from last night
say something you think is beautiful
drink some coffee
from behind my paper
and drive away,
leaving a kiss on my lips
and a hole in my heart
where a fire ought to be

Favorite Films

  • The Wizard Of Oz
  • Amelie
  • The Princess Bride
  • Casablanca
  • Annie Hall
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • All That Jazz
  • Citizen Kane
  • Love Actually
  • Moulin Rouge
  • Big Fish
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • Almost Famous
  • Bull Durham
  • Notting Hill
  • Apocalypse Now (Redux)
  • Magnolia

All-Time Favorite TV Shows

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Gilmore Girls
  • M*A*S*H
  • The West Wing
  • The X-Files
  • The Daily Show
  • Ally McBeal
  • Picket Fences
  • All In The Family
  • Seinfeld
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show
  • Star Trek
  • Firefly
  • Wonderfalls
  • Northern Exposure
  • Get Smart
  • The Dick Van Dyke Show
  • Twin Peaks
  • The Larry Sanders Show
  • Monk
  • Felicity
  • St. Elsewhere

Current TV Shows I Enjoy (in no particular order)

  • Perception
  • Major Crimes
  • American Horror Story
  • Louie
  • Suits
  • The Newsroom
  • Falling Skies
  • Franklin and Bash
  • Veep
  • Scandal
  • Fairly Legal
  • Girls
  • Don't Trust the B---
  • Justified
  • Portlandia
  • Psych
  • The Middle
  • Person of Interest
  • Happy Endings
  • Hart of Dixie
  • Real Time with Bill Maher
  • Nikita
  • Raising Hope
  • Castle
  • Drop Dead Diva
  • Covert Affairs
  • Elementary
  • Rizzoli and Isles
  • Revolution
  • The Last Resort
  • Alphas
  • SNL
  • Revenge
  • Community
  • Suburgatory
  • New Girl
  • Once Upon a Time
  • Grimm
  • Nashville
  • Downton Abbey
  • Smash
  • Homeland
  • Fringe
  • Glee
  • Haven
  • Community
  • Warehouse 13
  • Modern Family
  • Vampire Diaries
  • The Daily Show
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • The Colbert Report
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Leverage
  • Rachel Maddow Show

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