From the way back archives of my writing, sort of in response to an article that just appeared in Slate.
I wrote this more than a decade ago, for a class assignment in a graduate class in composition theory. Over the years, the Mr. Sinclair of this little essay has proven to be a guiding light in my own career as a teacher of writing.
Seven Lessons on Writing
Lesson One: Third Grade
I had a little Scholastic notebook; we all did. Inside, we were to write whatever we wanted, just so long as we did it often (I can’t remember if it was once a week, twice a week, hourly). My stories were invariably filled with spies, secret agents, soldiers, warriors. For whatever reason, I was always portrayed as the dashing hero vanquishing the evil villain, who was usually identified as the kid in our class who we all hated for his attitude and real-life violence (he used to pick frequent fights with the doughiest kid in our class), his sense of superiority derived from a perception of wealth. We were all faculty brats; his dad was president of an oil drilling company.
Moral 1: Writing lets you get even.
Moral 2: A good writing teacher doesn’t put you in counseling for writing war stories.
Lesson Two: Fifth Grade
Nate—his dad was a librarian at the university where most of our parents worked—brought in a graphic novel called Elf Quest. It was book four of the series, the one where the elves have an orgy by firelight the night before running off to battle the evil snow trolls for the right to occupy an ancient elfin castle.
We huddled around Nate—and the book—and were absorbed by the masterful writing. Now, the nudity of the book was rather tame, as far as nudity goes, all roundness and tastefully placed shadows, but for us it was tremendous, titillating, frightening (somehow we knew our teacher wouldn’t have the same respect for the words, the words, nothing but the words). I recall that at the time, I thought sex was only one of two possible ways to have kids. The other was “sleeping together,” which I assumed was a rather benign and boring way of having kids. My understanding was that fertilization happened spontaneously by the proximity of a man and woman lying unconscious in the same bed. This book, though, convinced me that I definitely had to marry a woman who preferred the other method.
Soon after this day, the journal entries I wrote started describing the activities of Matt Ferrence, the elf, who was on a quest to regain the lost castle of his forebears. No fool—I understood the teacher mind—I excised the steamier parts of my stories.
Moral 1: You write what you read.
Moral 2: A writer must be conscious of audience, or end up getting yelled at.
Lesson Three: Ninth Grade
Journalism was the greatest class in school; you got your own laminated hall pass, to be used at your discretion (or, as the teacher saw it, to be used to hunt down hot stories for the school newspaper, “The Crimson Arrow”). We also got to go on field trips, to The Indiana Gazette, for example. Before going, our teacher informed us that a student we all knew, as well as all of her numerous sisters (big Catholic family) vomited at the smell of the printer’s ink. So be aware, she said. This stole a bit of the excitement from the trip. Or maybe it added some.
At the paper, we got to sit with a real professional newspaper person for the morning. I sat with some guy dressed in a torn, fraying insulated lining of a winter coat. He had a mustache. He had messy hair. He was quiet. He spent the entire morning pasting up the temperatures from around the country and writing the brief, four-sentence, incomprehensibly insensitive and racialized Chief Tommy Hawk blurb that described the weather. For example: “Brrr. Chief Tommy Hawk must do rain dance yesterday. Big sun not return for three days. Big rain make corn grow.” Things like that.
I was frightened of this man.
Our assignment, after the visit, was to write a paper describing what we learned. We were to be original and creative. I realized I had to write about this man who looked, as far as I could tell from my limited life experience, like an axe murderer. So I was creative. I described him in detail, as looking like an axe murderer, then I described all the things I learned from him, which actually were numerous. My closing to the paper was something like, “And I learned, most of all, that even if someone looks like an axe murderer, he may in fact have a lot to teach you.”
We had to read these papers out loud to the journalism class. My peers loved my paper. They laughed. They were inspired. My teacher scowled. She said, “That was highly inappropriate.”
Moral 1: Making people laugh is fun.
Moral 2: Honesty and creativity in writing isn’t always appreciated, even if asked for.
Lesson Four: Ninth Grade
There I was, in the auditorium of Indiana Junior High School, surrounded by the rest of the school, maybe 750 kids in three grades. My 9th Grade English Teacher, Mr. Sinclair (also my drama director) was introducing the annual English Award, given to the boy and girl in the school who had proven to be the best and brightest writers. He was talking about the winners, without mentioning their names—this had something to do with drama, with building interest and excitement. I don’t remember many precise details, but he kept using impressive adjectives like “brilliant” and “mature” and “creativity.”
Wow, I thought.
Then I won, as did Caren, a truly bright student who is now a captain in the Army somewhere in the South. After the assembly, my friends were congratulating me on the unexpected award (I got a lovely Cross pen and pencil set, which I soon came to learn was the regular gift/award for academic rites of passage; I could open up my own franchise, just by hocking the sets I’ve been given over the years). One friend said that when he started hearing all the laudatory (he may not have used that word) adjectives, he was wondering who the heck was going to win it, who was that great at English. He never would have guessed me.
Me neither. I had simply enjoyed English class that year because of the charisma and kindness of Mr. Sinclair. As a result, I wrote what I wanted to write. As a result, I wrote as well as I could.
Moral 1: Writing what matters to you brings reward, or at least Cross pen and pencil sets.
Moral 2: Mr. Sinclair was a great writing teacher, not that I could explain why.
Lesson Five: 12th Grade
I was tired of writing at this point. Who wants to write another boring research paper: intro, body, conclusion, MLA format, carefully selected quotes, blah, blah, blah. We were reading Beowulf. I had to write a research paper on something from the era, and I ended up with Viking burial mounds somehow.
Does a paper have to be boring? I asked Mrs. K.
No, she said.
So I can liven this up, make the language more fun, generally have fun with it?
Sure. That would be great, Mrs. K said.
My paper was titled “Mounds: Not the Candy Bar.” It was well-researched (I suspended my usual procrastination and started two days before it was due), but more importantly it was written with fun in mind. I cracked jokes. I mocked myself, the subject matter, everything in a masterful way that still allowed all my cool info to get through (did you know, for example, that the Vikings built their graves to look like ships?).
I got an A for research, for mechanics, for organization, for all the stuff that matters in a paper. I got a B on the paper, with only a single comment as means of explanation: “Inappropriate tone.”
Moral: Creativity in writing isn’t always appreciated, even when you get permission.
Lesson Six: Freshman Year
“You are my sunshine,” Rosaly wrote on my first paper for Freshman Writing. We met to talk. She told me not to worry about the assignments in the class. They’re designed to help students who don’t know how to write learn to write. She told me that I could write whatever I wanted, to be creative, to do what I wanted with my writing.
A bad learner of lessons (see lesson five), I followed suit. I wrote my heart out in the class. I did what I wanted with language, with subject, with creativity. I tested all the limits I could think of. Rosaly loved it all. She rewarded me with praise and constructive criticism. She rewarded me with an A. I thought of Mrs. K, and I laughed.
Moral 1: Well, so writing can be creative. This is like 9th grade again.
Moral 2: A good writing teacher lets her student find his own limits, his own voice.
Lesson Seven: 1999
An M.F.A. under my belt, a marriage looming on the horizon, I needed a job. Badly. I interviewed at a bank as a corporate trainer where I made the interesting decision to play my saxophone during the final interview.
For the last year or so I had also been writing occasional pieces for my hometown newspaper. They had offered me a full-time job that I had turned down, which I now needed; the corporate training wasn’t coming through for me, something about too many saxophones already on staff. I went in to talk with the editor.
I need a job, Sam, I said. Is there anything full-time here, any hope of anything?
The next day, I was meeting with the owner of the paper, and he was explaining to me how the paper was more of a family than anything. Apparently, this meant they could pay very poorly, since we were all family.
But I was grateful for the job; I was a professional writer, and suddenly found myself in the odd position of writing for the paper I had grown up reading. I found myself in the odd position of working with the axe murderer guy who did the weather: his name was Bob, and he turned out to be quite nice. He seemed to have jettisoned the coat liner, and he no longer did Chief Tommy Hawk. In some sort of ironic twist of fate, I ended up writing that blurb almost every morning, navigating the Chief’s iconic, nostalgic status in the community with my own sense of its rather obvious racism. Notably, Tommy now spoke in normal meteorological terms, stereotyped dialect wisely excised a few years before I arrived. I also found myself in the odd position of working with Mr. Sinclair, now John, who had retired from school teaching and filled some of his spare time writing a golf column for the paper, helping out in the morning with page layout, editing the Religion page.
John and I talked often. Despite all the writing teachers I had ever had, some splendid some terrible, he was my favorite. We golfed together. We avoided work on slow afternoons and talked, about teaching and writing and respect. He told me how he quit teaching to work for the paper when he was in his 20s, how a year later he quit the paper to go back to teaching. “You’re a fool,” the owner (the father of the current owner) told him. “You have to do what makes your heart sing,” he told me. “And that’s what shows in your writing, Matt. You really love what you’re doing.”
Moral 1: Writing is about love.
Moral 2: Teaching is about love.
Moral 3: Teaching writing is about love.