Category Archives: writing

How Writing Should Be Taught

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The way writing is taught is, by and large, terrible.

Starting at an early age, English teachers encourage students to think of writing as an unbearable chore, a hellish task, and something that only the rarefied few will ever excel at. It doesn’t have to be this way.

I loved writing as a kid, and love it still, but it was in spite of my writing teachers, not because of them. They did their damnedest to make writing a miserable experience. Frequently a first draft writing assignment would come back to me marked up with red ink, with harsh comments in the columns. This is not the way to teach a creative process.

Often the way writing is graded by teachers puts too much focus on the mechanics. I know why teachers do this. It is a fact that poor mechanics in writing will make other people think you are stupid. A single typo on a resume could mean you don’t get invited for an interview. People love finding ways to elevate themselves above others, and the English language is an absolute minefield of opportunities for error – homophones, silent letters, foreign spellings, irregular plural markers. And often in modern society your first impression on another person is through your writing. An error in mechanics can have an outsize impact.

But writing is not mechanics. Writing is not spelling and grammar and handwriting. Those are the tools we use to produce writing, just as paintbrushes, paint and brush strokes are the tools a painter uses to create art. But the writing itself is so much more than the sum of its parts.

Writing can be many things. Analysis. Explanation. Persuasion. Expression. Good writing has a voice that is unique to the writer, and ideas combined in new ways. The raw material of writing is drawn from experience, and the practice of writing improves the result. This is a creative endeavor, and it should be taught as such.

If art teachers taught painting the way English teachers teach writing, no one would enjoy art. And in fact, some art teachers do teach art badly, and the result is a lot of people giving up on something they enjoy, because they think they can’t “hack it” as artists. Shame on those teachers.

Imagine if you were trying to learn to paint, and every time the art teacher came around to look at your work they said things like “your lines aren’t straight enough” or “these proportions are all wrong”. How long would you last under that treatment?

And yet so many people think this is the way to teach writing. The vast majority of my writing teachers felt it was appropriate to laser in on every error, prejudge my work before talking to me, and to deconstruct what I wrote rather than to engage with it holistically. Very few of them ever asked questions like “what were you trying to do with this section?” – and of the few who did, I LOVED those teachers.

edited paper

By way of contrast, let me describe the methods of my favorite art teacher.

First, she made us comfortable. She made tea. Sometimes there were crackers or little cookies to nibble on. We talked about our week, and how we were feeling that day. Sometimes a student was tired or just “not feeling it today” and would abstain from painting. Instead, they would watch the rest of the class and provide encouragement. This had the double benefit of giving them a break (you can’t force art) and making the process feel more like a team effort.

Next, she helped us find ideas. You can’t just sit down to paint. You need to have something in mind that you want to work on. Often, this is the hardest part of the creative process – just getting started. Sometimes she would bring a curious object. “I found this wierd lamp at a yard sale!” she would say, holding up some ugly glass thing. “Anyone want to paint it?” Often, she took us outside, where the light and subjects were always changing, and inspiration was much easier to find. If we brought our own ideas to work on, she encouraged that heartily.

She engaged with our art on its own merits, not based on what she wanted us to produce. Once we were sitting in the alley, painting a scene of the fence and trees in her back yard. She came to look at what I was working on, and asked me “tell me about your piece.” This gave me the opportunity to describe what I had picked and why. “I liked the way the light was coming through the tree and breaking up on the fence. See? I’m painting the speckles.” She nodded. “That’s great!” she would say with real enthusiasm. She meant the idea, not the painting – she was encouraging the process, not the mechanics. She did not say things like “your fence lines are all wavy” or “this shading is all wrong.” She might, however, after asking several questions about the choices I had made and the techniques I had chosen to employ, offer some advice about technique. “You’re spending a lot of time in this corner of the paper. See if you can fill the whole sheet.” This had the effect of stretching me, encouraging me to build on what I had already achieved. It buoyed me, and made me want to work harder. If she had criticized my fence lines, do you think I would have felt buoyed? I don’t think so.

alley with fence

The way writing is taught can be this way. It SHOULD be this way.

Writing is a creative process, and writers get better with practice. Too much focus on mechanics, like spelling and handwriting, gets in the way and discourages people from the real meat and potatoes of writing – the analysis, the expression. Does a 9th grade English teacher really think they are going to improve on a student’s handwriting at that point? Are they really going to succeed where the 3rd grade teacher, who spent considerably more effort, has failed? If a person has bad hand-writing by the 9th grade, they probably always will. Give that student a computer and never look back. And as far as spelling goes, that is something that improves the more a person READS. Correcting spelling is important, but it should happen at the end of the editing process, never near the beginning of the writing process. And this is where a computer can shine, too. Students should be taught not to trust spell check or auto-correct completely, but to use them as tools to help find errors, which are difficult to see even for the most experienced of writers.

Writing, a skill so needed to be successful in our modern society, must be taught in such a way that it does not terrify or shame the student. Here is a hypothetical way that a writing teacher could adapt the methods of my favorite art teacher, and in fact, a poetry teacher of mine did many of these exact things.

First, encourage students to WANT to write. By 6th grade, many of my classmates had come to view writing as some form of punishment. Perhaps if they had been invited to write about something that was of interest to them, they would have been more inclined. For example: you like model planes? Here is a book about it. Write me a page about anything you loved in here. That sort of method works for some people. For others, writing seems like a boring, pointless pursuit. Appeal to them on practical grounds. Don’t like the way the city runs the parks? Write them a letter. Don’t like the way the movie theater overcharges for popcorn? Write a complaint. Write a review. Want to get a scholarship? Write an essay. For people who don’t enjoy the expressive or explanatory aspects of writing, it’s important to show them its practical value as a tool for getting what they want in life.

Second, encourage an environment where writing can happen at all. Asking a class to sit down together – with people they perhaps don’t like, in uncomfortable wooden chairs, with fluorescent lights overhead, in a drafty room, probably on an empty stomach, tired from staying up too late watching TV – to write an essay about the use of symbolism in Catcher in the Rye, is just too damn much. The hand writing is bad, and they know it, but they can’t help it. Their spelling is wrong, and they know it. They never much liked Sallinger anyway – they prefer Star Trek/My Little Pony cross-over fanfic. They can’t think of anything to write. Their mind is wandering. They scribble something down. They turn it in. They get it back the next day, covered in red ink. Missing paragraph breaks. Poor transitions. Lacks a conclusion or thesis. They got the dates wrong. It’s wrong, wrong, all wrong. This is not a situation that’s conducive to writing.

Here is what my poetry teacher did. He asked us how we were feeling. We chatted, we laughed, together as a group. He took us outside, had us walk around, and talk to each other about what we were seeing, smelling, feeling. He gave us good writing to read, and we talked about it, as a group, bouncing ideas off each other and making new connections. Then, and only then, he had us write.

Third, always engage with the writer first, not the writing. Ask questions. “Tell me what you were trying to do” is a good place to start. Writing is just thinking, written down in a linear fashion. Our brains don’t really think the same way that writing works, and this translation is harder than most people appreciate. A good teacher will ask the student to think about what they were trying to accomplish, and then help them assess whether or not they achieved that.

Fourth, encourage the writer’s voice. If I had a nickel for every time a teacher told me a phrase I used was “too informal” or used “inappropriate tone” I could buy a sandwich. Fortunately, I had some well of “fuck you” to draw on that saw me through those frustrating situations. I often argued with my teachers. I would say “that is my voice and if you don’t like it, too bad.” Later in life I have looked at these writing samples and agreed with my teacher’s comments, but that is NOT the point. By commenting on my voice, they were telling me what my voice should be, and that is wrong. If my art teacher had said my painting in the alley was “too cheerful” she would have been just as wrong. Perhaps my tone was inappropriate to what I was trying to achieve with my piece, but did these teachers ask what my intent was and engage me that way? No. They assumed and dictated, and in doing so, they were inadvertently crushing my unique voice and risking damaging my desire to write at all.

Finally, the last thing a teacher should do is to critique mechanics. Mechanics do need to be taught. Good writing does need to be readable. But there is a reason that professional writers write first and edit later. Writing and editing are two completely different processes.

My art teacher gave suggestions, but they were not commands. If I chose to ignore her and press forward, she never said another word unless I asked for help. Once, when I expressed frustration with a piece – and crucially, was in a place where I wanted to hear advice – she suggested that my painting looked overworked. That I needed to learn to recognize when it was done and to stop, to leave something up to the imagination of the viewer. In this way, she gave me an idea for future pieces, but was not overly critical of the one I had just produced. I took this feedback graciously and have carried it with me ever since.

girl writing at chalkboard

And so, in conclusion (look at me! I have a conclusion!) I learned more about writing from an art teacher I met with a few times for fun on Saturday mornings, than I did from countless hours spent with English teachers and their red pens. Writing is an art form, and a crucial skill for success as an adult. Everyone can learn to do it well, but only if they practice. And people will only practice if they enjoy it at least a little bit.

Writing can be a powerful expressive skill. Teachers, please: don’t kill that spark.

To Be Taken With a Grain of Salt

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I wrote this in 1998, when I was 20 years old. I’m posting it here with no edits.

I am pleased to say that I have mostly followed my own advice.

Note: the part about integrity right after I displayed my love of being inscrutable was meant to be a little inside joke. I’m funny like that (or at least, I think I am).

To be taken with a grain of salt

Make friends of your enemies.
Celebrate diversity, sometimes; other times, transcend superficial differences.
Reveal your heart; be vulnerable.
Know when to speak up; know when to shut your mouth.
Embrace others suffering as your own.
Cry passionately.
Laugh heartily.
Give firm, bone-crushing hugs.
Look for trouble.
Fight injustice.
Change things.
Never be content.
Listen to loud music.
When no one’s around, drive fast.
Tell the neighbors to go to hell.
Bake them cookies.
Call your grandmother and tell her you love her.
Kiss slowly.
Talk to little kids; pretend they are adults.
Ask kids their opinion; take their ideas seriously.
Sometimes, dress sloppy; other times, dress up.
Never be typecast.
Integrity, integrity, integrity.
Watch leaves fall.
Admire the sunset, the sunrise.
Go out for coffee, even though you have some at home.
Kiss leaves.
Be careful which leaves, though.
Sing to plants – sing to yourself.
Treat your pets like friends.
Be serious, be silly.
Laugh at yourself.
Like yourself.
Do little things for others; don’t tell anybody.
Take showers with your lover.
Have tickle-fights. Win.
Sometimes, watch the news; other times, watch The Simpsons.
Cuddle.
Stop to smell flowers.
Smile back at daisies.
Let snowflakes melt on your tongue.
If you like someone, say so.
If you don’t, find out why.
Be creative with food.
Build your own furniture.
Share books.
Bicycle to work.
Lie down on the floor – on your back – stretch out and relax.
Learn to play an instrument; go outside to practice.
Smile at passersby.
Live in the city; live in the country.
Plant trees. Name them.
Learn a second language. And then a third.
Waste nothing.
Take only what you need.
Share food with friends; split the cost.
Tell your friends you love them; tell them why.
Watch the Discovery Channel.
Watch the Muppets – they’re still funny.
Leave work and drive to the coast – watch the sun set – and then go home.
Wear scandalous underwear.
Gaze at the stars; wink back.
Howl at the moon.
Let your dog kiss you.
Work hard.
Don’t look at the clock.
Put up Dilbert strips.
Smile, for no reason at all.

 

A Dust Jacket Review

Today I started reading Neil Gaiman’s new short story collection “Trigger Warning” and I must point out one glaring flaw.

The text on the inside front cover of the dust jacket refers to Neil Gaiman as “the beloved storyteller.”

While I am sure he is loved by many, “beloved” is hardly the right adjective.

Mother Theresa was beloved. Santa Claus is beloved. Would you call a spider “beloved”? No, you would not.

What Neil Gaiman is, is a class A trickster, a conjurer, a charlatan. He pulls you in with a story, which you dutifully gobble up. At the end, you bark a laugh or say “huh” and go about your business.

But late at night, you wake up, and see the curtains moving without a breeze, hear a floorboard squeak where no footfall should be, see a shadow that’s gone when you rub your eyes.

And on waking, there can be only one logical conclusion: that such terrors you saw in the night exist not so much in the real world, as in your own head, where they are in a way far more dangerous.

To be fair, Neil Gaiman did not put them there. But he opened the cellar door, he pulled aside the cobwebs, and took the shackles off the monster. And now it’s roaming freely in the corners of your mind.

For this bit of magic, we love him. But you would hardly call a person who does that beloved. Respected, let’s say. Possibly revered. No, we need a word with more trouble in it, more menace.

I’m not sure what it is, not having a thesaurus handy. I’ll let you decide.

For now, I’ll go finish reading “Trigger Warning” and perhaps the word will be there. Or more likely I will find it, hiding in my mind’s cellar, behind the coal chute, in that dark corner that that tricky magician is about to show me.

Nanowrimo 2014 Excerpt

I did not complete my novel for Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) but it’s okay. I let myself be distracted with other art things and life, and I am not sorry.

What I wrote this year actually turned out pretty good, even if I didn’t finish it. I do sincerely intend to finish it, if for no other reason than to share it with my daughter, who is quite anxious to read about the talking cat, the super-intelligent horse, the arrogant prince, the emo elf-witch and the other fantasy tropes that I am having so much fun satirizing.

What follows is an excerpt from chapter 1. Enjoy!

~~

It was a hot day, soaked with sunlight. Roger lay very still under the Redwood tree in the front yard, one side in the sun, the other in shade. It was a perfect kind of day: dry, blue, and with multitudes of birds and small creatures flitting about for his entertainment. One chickadee even landed within striking distance of him, had he wanted to catch it. But on a day like this he was content to merely examine the creature, yet magnanimously not pounce on it.

He blinked his green eyes very slowly. One side of his face, the side in shadow, was a splotch of black and gray. The other side was white and brown. He sighed hugely and stretched one forepaw out into the bark mulch, then rested his chin upon it. He luxuriated in the bliss of being outside in nature.

A car drove by on the road in front of the yard, not ten feet from Roger. He flicked one ear and narrowed his eyes in irritation. Cars. Disgusting, stinking, noisy things. And they scared the birds away. How unforgivable.

He scowled for a moment longer, then stood and stretched, his back making a perfect Halloween-cat arch. He yawned, showing all his knife-like teeth, his pink tongue curling. Once that was done, he padded leisurely towards the house, knowing the human children would be home soon to let him back in. When the small humans came home before the large ones did, Roger would get two dinners, so this was something to hope for.

He strolled towards the front door and placed himself neatly beside the rhododendron, still and statue-like, a furry, mutli-colored gargoyle. Any moment now, he would hear the bus squeal to a stop at the end of the street, hear the klumpy footfalls of the humans he lived with as they came down the sidewalk. He would wait very patiently until it seemed they were taking much longer than usual. Then he would fidget for an eternity, and finally walk casually down to the bottom of the driveway, to check on their progress. When their advance took still longer than it should, he would canter up to them and twine himself between their legs, communicating clearly what he wanted. When they still took too long to get to the door, he would begin to despair that the large humans would arrive first, nixing his chance for an extra meal. In desperation he would finally gallop past the children to the door, sit, flick his tail, run back to them, meow, back to the door, and so on, until they finally, ever-so-slowly made their way to the threshold, put their key in the lock, and with agonizing incompetence, opened the door. He would rush past them inside to his food bowl, where there could be no doubt what he was after, and again, with a small measure of shame, he would meow piteously, until finally, finally, they fed him.

This was not Roger’s plan, per se. His plan was to wait, stoically, under the rhododendron, like any mature, self-respecting cat should do. But plans give way to empty stomachs, as everyone knows, and even a proud cat must sometimes ingratiate himself for a timely meal. The fact that “sometimes” was actually every time is a detail hardly even worth mentioning.

Great quote from the movie “Ratatouille”

“The bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.” – Anton Ego in Ratatouille

A wonderful line from a wonderful movie. I think we all put a bit too much importance on critiques. Sometimes it is helpful to know what someone else thought of something, but for the most part, I think I am better off finding out for myself what I think of it.

I also find it funny how some people feel so compelled to provide a critique. Why? Why is it so important to tell the world how much you hated something? It must be some biological imperative, some primordial habit to warn the others in our tribe: “Don’t eat that! It smells terrible!”

If I keep writing and actually start sharing what I write with people, inevitably someone will bring their soul-crushing criticism guns to bear on me. I’m fragile like a tea cup, and that is going to suck. Maybe this line from a silly movie about a courageous rat will sustain me.

Why Write?

Why do writers write? Well, for that matter, why do anything?

Writing is just like thinking, only better than. It lets us organize our thoughts. It is “thinking out loud”, so to speak. (Now that’s a mixed metaphor.)

Writing is intimate. It’s a way to share with others thoughts more private than we could ever say. Sometimes talking is too painful, where writing feels safe.

Writing is eternal, at least potentially. Once it’s written down, it can be shared and shared again. It can be copied and translated and repeated and recorded anew. Writing is a damn good shot at immortality.

Writing is lonely. Some writing can be done with others but I think the best writing happens at the contact between writer’s pen and paper, or between fingers and keyboard. Writing is one person, interpreted, distilled, cultivated, transcended. It is a cry in the dark, a call across the abyss.

Writing is meant to be read, even by those who only write for themselves. Writing communicates, it infiltrates. It echoes in its readers’ heads. It slips in under the radar and creeps over the walls people erect in their minds to protect themselves from scary, bad New Ideas. Writing is ultimately, hopefully, read. Read and re-read, loved or hated. It creates something in the world that can spawn new creations, new interpretations, new insights leading to new discoveries.

But still: why write? Not for the money – duh. Maybe for the readers, but nah – that’s not nearly good enough. Mostly I think we write to keep the darkness at bay, to shine a light in our lives. We write to keep the crazy within from consuming us. We write to create worlds, fantasies, where things make sense and play out as they should. (Histories are the greatest fantasies of all.) We write to create order from chaos, to turn infinite senseless variability into a purposeful, orderly narrative, with well-behaved capitalization and punctuation, and nicely-dressed grammar.

Write to create. Write to enjoy, to entertain. Write to share, to expand knowledge.

But most of all, write to make a better world.