Seven Lessons on Writing Saturday, Dec 14 2013 

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.

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A Brief Meditation on Good Fortune Wednesday, Jan 25 2012 

Something easy to forget:

This morning, my job was to sit in my office, in a comfortable chair, drinking coffee, reading a short story by ZZ Packer.

At the core, this is what professors do*, and I don’t think any amount of administrative bureaucracy, collegial disagreement, or professional frustration* overshadows the simple truth, blind luck, and tremendous privilege of this job.

We do what we want, based on our own serious interests, and get to have high-minded conversations with eager students about it. In the equation of our professional lives versus the rest of the world, I don’t think there’s any room for cynicism.

Now, back to the chair, to read some Annie Dillard.

 

* Substitute “titrate a solution,” “examine a global economic system,” “practice double-stop bowing” for “reading a short story by ZZ Packer,” depending on academic specialty.

* To be clear, I experience none of these, because I’m $%#^$% lucky to work where I do.

Enter the Laser Show Saturday, Jan 21 2012 

Classes reconvened in the middle of this past week. Since mine happen to all fall on Tuesdays and Thursdays this term, I only had one meeting with my students. The first day. Should I call it the dreaded first day?

Those classes got me thinking about day one actions, particularly because of the difference between how exciting these classes will be (they’re fun! popular! with wait lists!) and how exciting day one was not (eyes glazed as I go.over.the.syllabus).

In fairness to myself, the latter parts of each class weren’t bad. A definitional freewrite in one course set the stage for the work we have to do, and also revealed to me that students are generally enthusiastic about the subject matter but also have more or less no experience with it. A collaborative writing exercise in the other class worked well, got the class going a little, and also helped me gauge their skills going into the term. But the first half hour of the class drives me nuts: the syllabus.

I feel like I have to do it. Students want/need/ought to know what they’re facing, right? Get a feel for the nature of the class. Hear the overwhelming accumulation of the term’s assignments. Understand what their class-prep responsibilities are.

This day also sets the stage for the term, and I don’t like that I’ve made it into a perfunctory, blah, policy-dominated class. I want to be exciting. I want to have them leaving class saying, whoa this is going to be the most awesome class I’ve ever taken and I’ll put all my energy into it and man I feel sorry for the poor saps not in this course.

Sure, I could go the typical route: smoke machine, Pink Floyd lasers, thumping soundtrack. But I’d like to think up something fresher.

Ideas?

Experiment in Time Off Wednesday, Jan 11 2012 

There’s still another whole week before the Spring semester begins, and yesterday I polished off my syllabi. I’d been working and, worse, thinking about these syllabi since the beginning of the recess in late December. So now the plate is empty, and in an odd sort of academic hubris, I intend to take the next week off. Just off. Maybe not even check my college email. Certainly not go into the office. Definitely only read things I want to read. Absolutely not work on anything related to the coming semester.

Why does this feel like playing hooky?

Love It Friday, Sep 30 2011 

2000 students at this college.

Thursday night poetry reading with a poet of consequence.

Almost 10% of the student population is there, attentive.

I am amazed and thrilled.

New Job: On Sunday, Aug 28 2011 

A brief bullet list of the opening of this new academic chapter:

  • New health insurance cards arrived in the mail yesterday.
  • Today, I became officially employed — the last week of meetings have been, I guess, pro bono work for the college.
  • This afternoon, the college celebrated matriculation with full regalia and, alas, two very boring speeches to doe-eyed freshpeople.
  • But then we split the new class into Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw based on a magical mortarboard’s suggestions, and had a feast complete with floating serving ware.
  • … or should have.

Cleaning Out the Office Saturday, May 7 2011 

Four cardboard boxes, an end-roll of blank newsprint, one umbrella, and one plant. I carried these objects across campus today, to the parking lot behind the only two dorms left standing since I was a student here in the mid-90s. While shell-shocked parents tried to figure out how to fit a year’s worth of college accumulation in the backs of their family cars, undergrads said goodbye to each other, promised to keep in touch, shot beams of lingering-adolescent embarrassment at fathers who didn’t properly conceal the tampon boxes in the trunk.

I packed my own trunk with the streamlined jetsam of a three-year career at my alma mater. And I couldn’t help but feel the melancholy of this departure, even as I now head to a new, better, brighter college. I’ve traded a 4-4 load of composition and, when I’m lucky, a 45-student general lit survey for a 3-3 load of majors courses in my field. This year, I averaged about 120 students a semester. In the fall, I’ll have…um…19. Total.

But six months ago, I wanted nothing more than to stay at this financially-strapped, open-acceptance, state-underfunded, in-fighting den-of-vipers infested soul crushing regional comprehensive uni that markets itself as a doctoral I.

Why?

Because I knew it could be better, and because I like and understand the students here. Yeah, many come for the beer, and way-too-many come for with the get-a-degree-to-get-a-job mentality that lies in stark opposition to my educational fiber. But many also come because they have to come here. They can’t afford to go elsewhere. They need to stay near family. They screwed up in high school and couldn’t get into fancypants schools like the one where I’m headed. Many feel badly that they go hear, are apologetic, nurse inferiority complexes.

That’s why I wanted to stay. For those students. For the lightbulbs of intellectual curiosity, the gradual limbering of rigid minds, the nurturing of psyche and grey matter that shows that, yeah, good students are here too, damn it.

I understand hating the place, because I did as an undergrad. I was forced to go because it was free, and the national liberal arts college where I wanted to go was not. So I came here, and I found myself. And years later, I forgave myself for my resentment. Eventually, as well, I recognized the uselessness of that resentment and, better, the gifts my school had granted me.

Thursday, I saw those gifts outside of my office. An English major Poe devotee chatted with a business major karate tough guy. Poe wears funky glasses and dark clothes, does well in school and plans graduate study in literature. Karate was hoping just to pass my non-majors course, and chortled strains of rapture down the hallway when he learned of the B he earned on the final (this following a sub-50% F on the mid-term). That they can sit in a hallway, chatting about boxing and karate, that they can be in the same space at all, learning with and from each other, marks one of the great values of the public-access uni. Here, the cross-section of community stretches wide. Students at such a place (and, really, professors at such a place) have an opportunity to meet so many others who are not like themselves.

Community. That’s really the focus of this post. Forming it, having it, supporting it.

To me, there are few things in the academy that matter more than community, as a healthy one serves as the cornerstone for fruitful intellectual growth. Without community, differing points of view become negative conflict. With it, they become mindful debate. Community doesn’t mean everyone agrees, or is the same, or has the same goals — just that everyone is similarly committed to the place.

My melancholy, as I moved out, drew from a withering erosion of community. I wanted to teach at this institution because of the value and potential I saw in the community, because of the many students who crave more and better intellectual life. I wanted to stay because I wanted to be part of this community, and I wanted to help cinch the fissures that have opened.

I’ve written before about some of this. In brief: faculty hate administrators; union fights myopically; administrators count beans foolishly; rural students fear urban students; Philly students disdain Pittsburgh students; urban students see only cow pastures and rednecks; faculty see only underprepared, under-motivated students; students see only grades…

…nothing new for academia. Common issues that plague many, if not all, large campuses to some degree.

Yet as I start afresh in a new place, still at the front end of my career, I find myself thinking about community a great deal. And I find myself refusing to accept the inevitability of the anti-community forces of academe. I think, then, of recent posts by Horace and Dr Crazy, both of which center on issues of failed community. Each laments the spirit of their institutions, where community has begun to lurch and wobble. For Horace, it is the perennial departure of colleagues seeking “better” positions. For Dr Crazy, it is the refusal of her department to recognize the necessity of academic community beyond the provinces of the department. For each, I think, community has eroded (long ago, I’m sure) because of the siren of career, narrowly-defined.

In the case of Horace, I fear the turnover in his department is related to a conscious effort within that very department to “raise the profile” of the program. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s very good and noble for a school (and state) too frequently overlooked by the rest of the country. But I wonder if the effort to build a profile has led to the hiring of junior faculty who feel little sense of community, who instead maintain unbroken focus on ambition. Community can’t form when many are thinking in terms of stepping stones, comparative resources, and moving on for greater and better things. That leaves Horace, who has made himself part of the community, reeling at the vacated offices around him. Somewhat ironic in a department where the chair literally wrote the (a) book on academic community.

For Dr Crazy, the community is shattered by the inverse, by a failure on the part of her department to recognize that a community of scholars is more than just a kaffe klatch that doesn’t really like itself very much. No, indeed, a community of scholars is predicated on the celebration of intellectual success and on the inter-departmental, campus-wide community that it comprises. Everyone (almost) has the same degree, after all, is a philosopher in title. So as academics we must see ourselves not as members of a department housed within a university, as a bit of an amorphous and impersonal whole but, instead, as a unified whole. The university is the community, and dean’s parties are important components of that. Not because of the hobnobbery. Not because of potential favors. Not because of glad handing. But because we’re all part of the same place. We’re all devoted to the same mission of the mind. We’re all…

…okay…we’re not all in it for these reasons. And this, truly, lies at the heart of my melancholy. I see at my own, now former, university the same problems of community. And I see new hires coming in disdainful of the students and the teaching load (the students are too provincial, they think; the teaching load too teachy). They’re repulsed by the town. But they love the pay and benefits. So they come, and they put in their time, and commute to Pittsburgh or State College or some other far-flung “better” place to live. And they worry not one whit about shaping and creating a vibrant community at their intellectual home. I imagine, rather, that the university is not their intellectual home at all, and that’s the very problem.

I’m not saying I could solve the problem. And I’m not saying that I should have been hired because I care about the community if my credentials didn’t fit (but they did). And I’m not saying I’m not lucky to be getting out of dodge (because I am). I’m just saying that the place could be better if academics started generally thinking about issues of community more. If they decided that roots are good things. If they decided that staying in one place for a career is a worthy goal. If they accepted the mission of their own place of hire, embraced its unique balance of teaching/research, and sought to make it the best IT could be. Not to transform a regional teaching school into a doctoral place. Not to de-emphasize research at an R-1. To take schools, and colleagues, and students, and towns for what they are. Learn to be part of that community, and desire to be part.

Too sappy?

Maybe. But I can’t help but think that the current crisis of adjuntification and budget dissolution may be directly related to the general weakness of academic communities. We fight so much with ourselves in an effort to fashion a place in our own image that we’re left without energy to fight for our community. The budget axe cuts freely through a loose collection of narcissists. When that same axe hits the tight grain of a community…well, there I think a college has a chance.