About a week ago, I was asked by friend, Bryan, to guest write for his blog, TextbookPillow. Don’t ask. I have no clue as to the name either. Because I am a bit of a literary whore and have a slight inability to say no to my close friends, I immediately got started and delivered a short(ish) article to him. As per our arrangement, I allowed him sole control of it, until now. So without further ado, here is my guest piece on teaching and writing.
What I Learned About Writing From Teaching
Like many, if not most, English graduates, I have a touch of the authorial itch. I try to write whenever I have a free moment and feel guilt ridden when a day passes without words having been expressed. Writers want to write; hell, they have an almost instinctual need to do so. I equate it to almost an addiction without the usual, unfortunate consequences. No one will ever die from writing or not writing, but they will tend to become irritable, moody, unpleasant and could possibly suffer certain physiological effects (statements not to be taken as medical fact).
Concordant with my literary aspirations, I also really enjoy the basic amenities of food, shelter, clothing, and the occasional luxury of libations. As you can imagine, at my current level my musing and writings do not provide the sufficient funds to acquire the previously mentioned items. Thus, I have undertaken the noble profession of teaching, specifically teaching collegiate English. I know, I know; it does seem rather cliché of me, particularly considering the unfortunate adage of “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Even before I began teaching, this idiom irritated me. Everyone who has ever excelled at anything had a teacher at their earliest years. Whether a traditional educator or a personal mentor of sorts, no individual sprung forth fully able to create, play, work, in essence ‘do’ anything.
Furthermore, the act of teaching, even the few years of experience I possess, has affected how I write at all levels and has given me an entrenched and undeniable appreciation for language and the ability and knowledge of how to use it well.
In order to avoid too lengthy a text, I will break one of my personal cardinal rules and present the lessons my class and students have taught in a semi-listed form instead of a fully detailed essay. (I apologize to my former English professors, at least the good ones).
Read and Write. Seems rather obvious, right? Hell, every essay, article, and book ever written about the process and act of writing states this, typically, within the first few pages. Maybe they are on to something? Seriously, though, the best writers and students I have had in my short time as a teacher have been those that read. It doesn’t matter whether they read the classics, (e.g. Chaucer, Melville, Austen, etc.) magazines, (Cosmo, GQ, Details, etc.) or just popular books, (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Divergent, etc.) the ones who read were the ones who tended to either excel or improve the most in class. So, read, everything and anything, and write, often and as much as you can.
Respect the Process. Do you need to outline your essay, story, argument, thesis before committing a single word to paper? Do you need to have a spring scented candle lit in the room? Are you a research first type of writer? Music? Background noise? Doesn’t matter. Really, whatever you need to do to be able to write, do it. Whatever ritual or pattern you need to perform so that you can create, do it. Understand who you are and what you need and make that available to yourself. It is the only way to truly get to the core of your writing, regardless of what you are trying to write.
The Ideal Reader is Real. This particular gem is inspired partially by Stephen King’s On Writing. (I don’t usually recommend tomes on writing, but his is an exception. If you have a chance, pick it up as soon as you can). Everyone has an ideal reader in their head; that one person that we imagine smiling, laughing, and tearing up at all the right moments when they have your words in their hands. This is good because no writing, or work of art, is ever done in a vacuum. Even if it is a personal narrative that no else will read, it is serving a purpose and finding an audience in the author. So figure out who is that person who you want to read your book more than anyone else and write the story that will move them.
And He/She Can Be a Real Dick. Most of my students are taking the course because it is a requirement to graduate. Accordingly, they just want a certain grade, so they will write what they think I want to read to obtain that grade. Unfortunately, this severely limits their imagination and creativity when it comes to presenting their research and ideas. Similarly, you should not allow your ideal reader to limit your work’s possibilities. If an idea pops up that you think your ideal reader might not like, try it anyway and see what happens. The results may surprise you.
The Thesaurus is Your Friend. Expand your vocabulary and language. Honestly there are only so many times you can use the adverbs ‘really’ and ‘very’ before I want to drill a roughly sharpened pencil into my cerebrum. Also, instead of someone being repeatedly happy, let them be content, joyous, or exuberant. You don’t even need a physical thesaurus anymore. It is a simple click of the mouse away.
And Your Worst Enemy. If you have been using sad throughout your entire selection, it will seem rather odd for your topic or character all of a sudden to be depressed, especially if the cause of depression was the loss of a piece of gum. I always tell my students that connotation is just as important as strict definition, so be cautious of the synonym option on your word processors. Reaching for higher language is a noble endeavor, but understand and know the limits.
Writing is Easy, Revision is Hell. I know this sounds like idiotic blasphemy, but it is pretty accurate. For all the excuses and obstacles we place before ourselves, writing is a pretty simple process and one of the few things that virtually anyone can do regardless of class, race, gender, etc. Essentially, you are taking all the thought, research, and ideas you have in your head, and possibly notebooks and scraps of paper, and putting them all down in order to get them out of your head. This is easy. Does it take time and effort? Sure, but most of us have so many opinions and thoughts, that it doesn’t take too long to fill up a few blank pages. The real trick, and what separates decent writers from good and great ones, is being able and willing to go back over what you have initially written and meticulously deleting, editing, and rewriting your incoherent babble into something resembling intelligent, coherent, and entertaining essays and stories.
Screw the Rules, Do You. This is something I tell all my students. I will teach them grammar, spelling, how to actively read a text, and how to think critically. I will give them strategies, methods, and systems for improving their reading and writing abilities. Ultimately, it is up to them to incorporate them and, if necessary, ignore them. Earnestly, if they do not find my lessons or advice useful and it somehow impairs their success, I fully encourage them to ignore what I said and do what works for them. So, concerning all the advice on writing, on getting published, and on having a literary career you have ever read and heard, take what you want and disregard the rest. (Yes, including this essay).
I am sure I have already gone over my allotted word limit, so I’ll end there with the advice. Hopefully, you’ll find some of it useful, or at least a bit entertaining and thanks to Bryan for giving me this idea for a post.