Last Thursday, I presented an idea in the form of a rant. And that’s how we ended class. I want to talk a bit more about that, then move onto the practical matters in our class.
Here, if I remember it right, was my rant:
Students think two things: one, whatever they’re doing isn’t real writing. And two, heaven help us if we want to write about our own lives, because who would want to read that.
I hear this all the time, and especially when it comes to blogging, a very public and, in varying degrees, personal kind of writing. The reason for this school of thought, I would say, stems from a couple of things.
First, what I call the English Major Paradox. Writers, by and large, are English or literature majors when they are students, and during that time that exposed to what Matthew Arnold calls in his 1869 essay “Culture and Anarchy” as “the best of what has been thought and said.” Very rightly, English majors read Shakespeare. They read Milton. They read Toni Morrisson. They read Charles Dickens, Langston Hughes, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman. They read Derrida, Barthes.
Then they have to write essays about it. We’ll get to the problems with the term essays a little later. But the English Major Paradox is this: How are you, lowly English Major, going to compete with the Western Canon? How are you going to measure up to these people? Why even start to compete with the very literature they love by writing yourself?
Kurt Vonnegut has this famous quote—it might not be that famous, since I can’t find it online—along the same lines. He says that writing classes are harmful because, after you pour your heard out writing, make copies of your story or poem, everyone reads it. And the teacher—or, worse, another student—comments about how this story is good, but how would Shakespeare or William Faulkner have done with the same material? What a completely immobilizing and irrelevant question to ask for a student! Vonnegut says.
A subset of the English Major Paradox is what has been called The Elephants Teach Effect. I named this one after a super book called The Elephants Teach by David Myers. The name of this book, which outlines the history of writing classes, composition and creative, comes from a story when Vladimir Nabokov was up for a job in the literature department at Harvard, linguist Roman Jakobson protested. “What’s next?” he asked. “Shall we appoint elephants to teach zoology?”
The solution, I would say, is not to get rid of the writers who teach writing classes, is not to get rid of writing classes, and certainly not to discourage English majors from writing.
Part of the solution is very simple: It’s confidence building. We, by which I mean writing teachers, should be pass along to their students one very basic message:
You deserve to be heard.
What’s more: It is your duty, your calling, your sacred obligation, to write. Take yourself out of the conversation before it even begins, and your lost.
“There is no history,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “only biography.”
And for those who, perhaps even one generation ago, would not have the privilege to ponder whether or not one should set pen to paper, I urge you to think about Virginia Woolf, who explores how “it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare”:
Let me imagine, since facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say. Shakespeare himself went, very probably,—his mother was an heiress—to the grammar school, where he may have learnt Latin—Ovid, Virgil and Horace—and the elements of grammar and logic. He was, it is well known, a wild boy who poached rabbits, perhaps shot a deer, and had, rather sooner than he should have done, to marry a woman in the neighbourhood, who bore him a child rather quicker than was right. That escapade sent him to seek his fortune in London. He had, it seemed, a taste for the theatre; he began by holding horses at the stage door. Very soon he got work in the theatre, became a successful actor, and lived at the hub of the universe, meeting everybody, knowing everybody, practising his art on the boards, exercising his wits in the streets, and even getting access to the palace of the queen. Meanwhile his extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home. She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers. They would have spoken sharply but kindly, for they were substantial people who knew the conditions of life for a woman and loved their daughter—indeed, more likely than not she was the apple of her father’s eye. Perhaps she scribbled some pages up in an apple loft on the sly but was careful to hide them or set fire to them. Soon, however, before she was out of her teens, she was to be betrothed to the son of a neighbouring woolstapler. She cried out that marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father. Then he ceased to scold her. He begged her instead not to hurt him, not to shame him in this matter of her marriage. He would give her a chain of beads or a fine petticoat, he said; and there were tears in his eyes. How could she disobey him? How could she break his heart? The force of her own gift alone drove her to it. She made up a small parcel of her belongings, let herself down by a rope one summer’s night and took the road to London. She was not seventeen. The birds that sang in the hedge were not more musical than she was. She had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother’s, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for the theatre. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face. The manager—a fat, looselipped man—guffawed. He bellowed something about poodles dancing and women acting—no woman, he said, could possibly be an actress. He hinted—you can imagine what. She could get no training in her craft. Could she even seek her dinner in a tavern or roam the streets at midnight? Yet her genius was for fiction and lusted to feed abundantly upon the lives of men and women and the study of their ways. At last—for she was very young, oddly like Shakespeare the poet in her face, with the same grey eyes and rounded brows—at last Nick Greene the actormanager took pity on her; she found herself with child by that gentleman and so—who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?—killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some cross–roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.
One tragic thing I encounter as a teacher, one that I can’t adequately express in words, is how many under-represented populations now have the means, the time, the “room of one’s own,” and yet feel some resistance, external or internal, to and have their voices heard.
But let’s say someone has persuaded you that you can write, or you’ve summoned up that inclination yourself, and you want to try to be a better writer. Let’s say you love writing, and are immodest enough to throw your own hat into the ring. A writer might run into any number of problems or obstacles. Let’s talk about a few.
One is to learn the lesson that when you are writing, you never go it alone.
That myth of spontaneous, individual genius is just that: a myth.
The idea that writers are born and not made perpetuates another myth that writers have nothing to learn once they answer the call, that it’s enough that one has shown up into that room of one’s own with a laptop and a pad and pen. That’s just the first step. It’s a vital one, to be sure.
But that’s when the real work starts.
There’s good reason for many writers to be English majors, not the least of which is to find his or her tradition?
But we don’t teach that enough in writing classes. We don’t say that, along with whatever issues one person one might have with one’s writing, along with it comes a mission to seek and read and find out about what T.S. Eliot calls his or her tradition. Here’s a passage from his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”:
[I]f the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.
And even in this blogging class, this class filled with writing of great “novelty,” we are working in a tradition. And that tradition, in large part, is the essay’s tradition.
Which leads us to what I call the Essay Paradox. Essays, to many of us, are perceived as punishment.
I want you all to take out a piece of paper and write down, in 2-3 sentences, what your definition of an essay is. I’ll give you a couple minutes.
We can go around and hear a couple, sure.
Now, the essays you all write in school, by and large, are called essays. They are a vessel of your knowledge, a way to show that you have retained it, or a way to show you can explore it.
But is that really an essay?
What is an essay?
Is a blog a type of essay?
Why write in the first place? Phaedrus dialogue.