Monday, March 5, 2007

Feeding the Beast

Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go... Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

- E.L. Doctorow

Once a cycle (six school days) I ask my students to hand in a piece of writing on a topic of their own choosing. I've been doing this for most of my teaching career and it's one of the most interesting aspects of what I get to do as a teacher of English. The stack of papers that I just got through reading included five poems, two excerpts from serial short stories, three personal narratives, and self-assignment based on a suggestion I had made in class, that the students might want, if they got stuck for something to write about, to select a passage from The Poisonwood Bible, which we are now reading together, and try to capture the look and feel of that piece of writing in a similar piece of their own.

I enjoy sitting down with a stack of cycle papers more than I enjoy sitting down with a stack of papers arising from a directed assignment. I like the fact that every piece is likely to be, is going to be, different, that I'm going to be able to get a some sort of read on how the author thinks about writing, and, often, about life, that each paper is going to pose a different kind of challenge to me in terms of how to respond, what to direct the student's attention to. I like the fact that I can approach each piece of writing with no preconceptions, no sense of what it supposed to look like or how it was supposed to be done, and try to meet it wherever it is.

Today after school I was meeting with a departmental subcommittee which is charged with coming up with a proposal to present to the whole department with regard to the structure of our elective program. We currently have a required set of core courses in English for freshman and sophomores, but juniors and seniors get to choose from a wide range of semester electives—nearly twenty in all, ranging from "Plato's Republic" to "Identity and Culture" to "Buddhist Philosophy and the Game of Go." We've been adding new electives from time to time, but we haven't been eliminating any, and it seemed like it was time for us to stop and consider the logic of the elective program as it relates to the whole four-year English program at our school. Why these courses? Why not others? Why electives instead of requirements?

Anyway, one of the topics of discussion today had to do with our writing electives: Creative Writing, Composition, Journalism, and Advanced Writing. And one of the questions we were considering was whether or not we should, at one extreme, require every student to take one of those four courses; or, at the other extreme, whether we should eliminate all the writing electives on the theory that writing should be an essential part of every English course the students take; a theory which, if you squint at it just right, makes the writing electives seem redundant and unnecessary.

This is one of those questions about which it's possible to make plausible arguments on both sides. In those situations, I tend to shift over to gut-level feelings, and today I found myself arguing for the requirement rather than the abolition. And the reason has something to do with what I was just saying about the cycle papers. My experience with English courses and with English teachers, not just at my current school but in the other schools I've taught at and the secondary schools I attended, as well as the schools my children attended, tells me that writing as it is taught in most regular English classes is a very particular kind of beast. It is a beast that feeds on literature and demands to be palliated by certain kinds of ritual obeisances, which are spelled out in rubrics and composition texts. I can't really argue that there's anything wrong with that, and I've fed that beast and taught its care and feeding to my students often enough; but it seems to me that there is something larger, something more fundamental, something altogether more mysterious and interesting about writing than I ever seem to be able to get to when I'm feeding the beast.

I think writing, real writing, as opposed to the kind of writing we most often ask students to do, has to begin, as I did tonight, with the writer facing a blank page and, ideally, an empty mind. That's what real writers do. Sure, there are lots of times when writing is a more or less utilitarian act: I need to crank out this proposal, write this explanatory article, reply to this email. In those instances I might very well know both what I am going to say and how I am going to say it. But that, for me, isn't what I think about when I think about writing. Donald Barthelme says, "The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do." That makes sense to me.

Writing in this sense has to do with character, with the spirit: it has an embedded set of ethical principles, and a corresponding set of necessary virtures: Andre Dubus put it this way: "At the desk a writer must try to be free of prejudice, meanness of spirit, pettiness, and hatred; strive to be a better human being than the writer normally is, and to do this through concentration on a single word, and then another, and another. This is splendid work, as worthy and demanding as any, and the will and resilience to do it are good for the writer’s soul."

How many of us ever experienced writing in this way in high school or in college? How often do we make it possible for our students to experience writing in this way? Given the multiple simultaneous demands of the average English course—compounded for many teachers my the looming presence of state-mandated "competency" exams, how many of us are able to provide our students with the space and time and freedom and encouragement to become writers, as opposed to students who know how to write? I do what I can. I often feel it is not enough. But I want to keep the thought alive. Just because the beast wants to eat, doesn't mean I have to feed him.


Clay Burell said...

Very interesting and enjoyable post, as usual, Bruce.

Right now I'm wrestling with how, when, even whether, to give teachers our new school blogging software to use with their students.

My fear is exactly that through institutional inertia and teacher mis-use, blogging will become "just another way to turn in homework"--instead of a way for students to become, as you write, a "writer facing a blank page and, ideally, an empty mind."

An old colleague--interestingly, a science teacher, not a liberal arts one--replied to one of my posts that blogs might be best used outside of the disciplinary content areas. That's leading to some interesting conversations.

Rather than be redundant, here's the link:

blogging said...

I would say you generally start of with an idea, and then go... and what actually winds up on the sheet is a discovery. The best writing is like one view of sculpting, as you reveal what was already there. For non-fiction; what you show is what is demanded by the intersection of the subject and the audience; for fiction it was demanded by the intersection of your characters and the events they face.

And as you write, you discover what is demanded. You didn't know it before you wrote it, in most cases.