Teaching Writing When You Yourself Don’t Know How to Write

1. Supposedly, Thomas Mann said that writing is more difficult for writers than other people. I wouldn’t know, as I can’t find the essay where the quote resides. What I have depends on hearsay, and my response to such an idea, my attempt to test its truth, depends on my attempt to make something.

Writers talk a lot about craft, their depictions seeming almost whimsical when one considers how technical good writing is. Good poems feature a number of literary devices to bring about rhythmic, musical sounds while preserving a puzzle, a sense of mystery, that makes one want to revisit the speaker’s perspective. Nowadays, many people consider poetry artsy nonsense that isn’t demanding enough. Journalism and essays are thought to have stricter standards in terms of organization, facts, analysis, and even authorial credentials. But when a journalist says they retype their sentences to “get into a rhythm,” and a renowned poet talks about using Tarot cards for an exercise, I wonder where exactly our sense, or any sense, that writing is an intricate machine with various, necessary parts comes from.

2. I could teach her with make a claim, defend it. Rinse and repeat. If you say Lincoln has a different rhetorical basis for American democracy than Jefferson, for example, you cite the Gettysburg Address as significant. You propose that there, he comments on the Declaration of Independence, changing the status of “all men are created equal” from “self-evident truth” to a “proposition” in order to reflect the fact that American democracy may not survive. What is needed is the rededication of the American people, a real concern for equality, and thus nothing less than a “new birth of freedom.” A claim leads to further claims which can be proved. You go through the words you put on paper, identify what claims you want or have to make, order and defend them accordingly.

It goes without saying this is not writing. It is not even thinking. Learning to write in terms of “here’s a thesis, here’s what defends the thesis, order accordingly” held me back in terms of my thought for years. It put a premium on organization and a certain kind of argumentation that limited what I saw and said. It was helpful for assignments, but what I needed was to learn to write badly. Really badly.

There’s a lot on this blog that’s incomprehensible. I’d start putting words down, get obsessed with a detail or two, completely lose focus on what I intended to say. Or I’d start with a bunch of suspect observations and work myself into a tangle. Other times I’d lose my place or forget to summarize what I had covered adequately, or I’d have an inconsistent tone that makes it unclear what I really meant to argue. Finally, there’s the problem of writing too much, of losing focus just because I’m straining myself, trying too much too sloppily, hoping effort justifies.

That hard work can be counterproductive is more than a tough lesson. There are people – indeed, I’ve had “teachers” who’ve told me and others this – who urge quitting in the face of it. Why try, why fail? I’m not making sense to others, I’m not making sense to myself. If writing doesn’t communicate, what good is it?

3. One has to arrive gradually at an answer. You can read into my words above, you can see the shape of a response, but to accept and embrace any such supposition does not begin to comprehend the power of real writing. What makes Lincoln awesome is the power within his themes and questions. Rightly he centers on the problem of equality and liberty, seeing it fundamental to how we conceive democracy. You could say a number of thinkers say the same, that he didn’t really free the slaves, that he prosecuted a terrible war, that his literary legacy is miniscule, that he destroyed the Constitution. None of this gets at why his words matter, why he’s a human being of the first rank. It isn’t the eloquence, it isn’t the history, it isn’t even his position. It’s the attempt: his sense of justice courses through every word of the Address.

Oftentimes, “finding your voice” stands a sad trope in writerly circles. Learning to be sensitive to the voices of others, to give life to voices other than your own, becomes a lost cause. And even for those with more interesting, nuanced voices, “finding your voice” becomes the impetus for self-indulgence rather than thoughtful concern.

I propose that it is knowing how our words fail us that is the heart of any truth in finding one’s voice. It’s easy to look at amazing, successful examples of writing and be starstruck. We want to imitate or find our own path, enjoying fame or moving others. But our goals, whether noble or ignoble, whether just or unjust, can point away from the more refined understanding of justice in self-expression itself. Polonius may have been a fool, but “to thine own self be true” is what we’re reaching for.

4. Of course, continually failing at writing does not lend itself to being a productive, useful writer. At some point, a student has to craft prose that conveys knowledge and relevance.

That prose, I suspect, has to accept its incompleteness. We do tell a lot of stories nowadays that at first glance seem limited. To take the most serious example, the news comes fragmented. However, if one considers it as a whole, it is united by the theme of “our world” and characterized by cyclical repetition.

In a way, pre-Socratic madness was more honest. Why not compose a poem that will disclose the truth of Being? Are all things one and unchanging simply because they are? Or is everything composed of water? Or wind? Or fire? We have assumptions that color how we receive or convey anything. To engage and confront the craziest ideas can remind of what generates everything from cosmologies to laws to manners and mores.

Suffice to say my failures as a writer can be cured by pushing a delete button. In my teaching right now, I’m trying to get students to be honest about how they think or don’t think about their assignments. It isn’t enough for them to write a solid argument or express an insight. What matters is how they got there, where the resistance made itself felt.