A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Category: On Writing

What is interesting? A podcast episode for my students

Today I extended my classroom podcast project by interviewing Austin Lammers, who spoke to my students about the question, “What is interesting?”

I thought the conversation was worthwhile and that Austin did a nice job. Give a listen if you’re curious (it’s about 20 minutes), and if you liked it, tell Austin: @AustinLammers.

Read some of Austin’s writing online: 

Growing into our style by loving the reader

In an exchange of letters years ago a former student and I were batting around the source of voice in our writing. As a college student, if I understood his points correctly, he was exploring the way other writers were influencing his voice and striving to discover within himself how he might differentiate himself: “If I fail to make them my own? / I fail to make anything worthy at all.” His comments often come to mind as I share with students excerpts from John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, where McPhee is quoting a letter he’s written to his daughter, who is suffering from similar troubles:

The developing writer reacts to excellence as it is discovered—wherever and whenever—and of course does some imitating (unavoidably) in the process of drawing from the admired fabric things to make one’s own. Rapidly, the components of imitation fade. What remains is a new element in your own voice, which is not in any way an imitation. Your manner as a writer takes form in this way, a fragment at a time. A style that lacks strain and self-consciousness is what you seem to aspire to, or you wouldn’t be bringing the matter up. Therefore, your goal is in the right place. So practice taking shots at it. A relaxed, unself-conscious style is not something that one person is born with and another not. Writers do not spring full-blown from the ear of Zeus.

William Zinsser has similar encouragement, particularly in On Writing Well, but I ran accross additional Zinsser wisdom in Writing About Your Life. Here, he observes how long style takes to develop, a point I have found to be entirely true to my own experience:

Writers are always impatient to find their style, as if they expect it to descend on them, heaven-sent, in their twenties or early thirties. Usually it takes longer; we grow into our style. I could argue that I didn’t really find my style until I wrote On Writing Well, in my fifties. Until then my style more probably reflected who I wanted to be perceived as–the urbane essayist or columnist or humorist–than who I really was. Only when I began to write as a teacher and had no agenda except to be helpful–to pass along what I knew–did my style become integrated with my personality and my character.

I don’t think there is anything magic about Zinsser’s age there, but there does appear to be something magic about the lack of focus on himself. When he quit trying to portray himself as something and served something beyond himself, serving his reader, his voice developed (I find myself resistant to the metaphor of discovery when discussing voice, but I’ll have to save that topic for another day).

Some of how I rephrase Zinsser there is traceable to Jonathan Rogers, who speaks well about the importance for a writers to love their readers:

You’re not really going to grow as a writer until you stop thinking about what you’re going to get out of writing (significance, respect, love, money, recognition, etc.) and start thinking about what you can give through your writing. What do you have to give to your reader that he can’t get for himself?

And if we’re tracing sources of loving others and not consuming ourselves with thoughts of ourselves, why not trace back to an even more ancient source of wisdom?

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 

George Saunders on the writer’s essential energy

I enjoyed listening to Lew Klatt talk with George Saunders at the 2016 Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College. There’s lots there and I recommend it, but one piece I liked was what Saunders says when Klatt asks him about how pleasure energizes a story. Saunders suggests that writers are most apt when they return to the elements that make them who they are.

For himself, he began trying to write in ways that weren’t essentially himself, but then he remembered “the kind of energy I had as a kid watching Gorge Carlin or Monty Python” and realized, “The only literature I could ever make was going to thrive on that kind of energy.”

He continues:

All my life I’ve gotten myself out of trouble by being funny. It would be weird if this 300 page thing called a book was going to come into existence without any reference to that which I actually did in real life.

My job as a story writer is to start. From there it is my responsibility to keep you compelled to finish the book. If you don’t finish it, there’s no politics, no spirituality. My job is to keep the reader on the hook.

How can writers more generally do this? Saunders says this to his writing students at Syracuse:

What are the three or four (things) you have to cause the reader to keep going. They can’t possibly be unrelated to the normal ways you have as a human being—the things you use to charm people.

It’s a seduction of sorts.

And to share an example with Klatt, Saunders drops the most apt description of what it’s like to read David Foster Wallace that I’ve heard. Was he watching over me as I read Infinite Jest?

If you read Dave, one of the things that gets engaged is a certain impatience. David really goes and goes. That bit of resistance gets brought up in a reader, and just about when you can’t take it, he’ll say some unbelievably brilliant thing that cuts right to who you are as a human being and suddenly you’re engaged.

When I was younger I spent a lot of time playing around imitating other writers’ normal ways of being a human, and then I’d write letters to my not-yet-wife and I’d simply be the person I was. And the more I write through the years, the more I see that the best parts of my writing are when I sound the most like who I am with my wife.

Helping writers by getting involved early

My juniors are writing research papers, and a key element of this process is the proposal. Before students take any notes or commit to their project, they must create for me a proposal, where they present their sources and a short description of what each source will provide for their paper.

For my juniors, an AP class, I have added an extra step before the proposal, where they describe for me their top three ideas. I read over these ideas and suggest which ones I believe are feasible and which ones will present problems. I don’t really care what they write about, but after a decade and a half of teaching, I can see quickly which topics are trouble. With trouble-topics I find myself asking students, “When it comes time to research this idea, what are you going to type into the query box?” If they can’t articulate something tangible, trouble is brewing.

Whatever the particulars, though, my goal is to get involved early and make myself into the helpful editor, the kind John McPhee celebrates in his little book Draft No. 4:

Editors are counselors and can do a good deal more for writers in the first draft stage than at the end of the publishing process. Writers come in two principal categories–those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure–and they can all use help. The help is spoken and informal, and includes insight, encouragement, and reassurance with regard to a current project. If you have an editor like that, you are, among other things, lucky; and through time, the longer the two of you are talking, the more helpful the conversation will be. (83-84)

In teaching writing I am an editor as much as anything, and McPhee is exactly right about getting involved early–the earlier in the process I can interact with students about their ideas and papers, the better I can encourage them. And the less discouraging I am when I suggest they steer in another direction. When they hand me that final draft, I can critique it and correct it, but at that point students are emotionally finished with it; the last thing they want to do is wait two weeks and have me demand they return to it. It was a final draft, after all.

Along these lines, I have also adapted McPhee’s idea into advice to students heading to college. Which is to say, I’m telling students what I would love to tell my 18-year-old self. If I could go back in time, I’d instruct myself go to my professors a few days before my papers were due and throw my thoughts before them, like a proposal. Then I could have sat there with them to hear their responses to my initial ideas, letting their responses push me into new or more profound directions.

I have discovered as an adult that I have better ideas than I thought myself capable of producing when I am able to bounce them off another person and adjust them. As a teenager and college student I was intimidated by my professors and brilliant classmates—they were so insanely smart! How did they ever think of those things?—but I was depriving myself of the conversation they were engaged in. When I worked completely in isolation, never interacting with another person until the paper had reached its unalterable state, I limited myself to a first hearing.

McPhee is particularly happy with the thought of an editor and writer working together for a long time. I can see the appeal and would love one for myself.

But as an editor/teacher, there is something exciting about getting an entirely new crop of talent to work with each year. In terms of their careers, I get to be involved in their early stages, and that’s a time I can do a good deal more for them.

I find myself inspired to share, inspired to write

Jonathan Rogers describes in his newsletter The Habit how some writers make him want to write:

There are writers I read when I want to read, and there are writers I read when I want to write. Charles Portis is a writer who makes me want to write. Portis is best known for True Grit. His lesser-known novel The Dog of the South is one of my all-time favorites. I make no claims for Charles Portis’s greatness. I never put his books in people’s hands and say, “You have to read this!” I just know that when I read The Dog of the South or True Grit, I feel emboldened to sit down and try writing another story.

Portis does something similar to me, though the news writing collected in Escape Velocity inspired me more than his novels (his novels simply delight me–I have no desire to attempt such fiction, it is beyond my skill). And while I think it’s a shame I can’t say, “You have to read this!” about a writer as great as Portis, I know what Rogers means: some people won’t enjoy him.

E.B. White has always had the effect on me that Rogers describes; I don’t know if everyone would love his work, but I always do, and it makes me want to grab a pen and attempt the same noble pursuit. Harrison Scott Key and Alan Jacobs are working writers who also elicit this response from me. I won’t create anything as good, but their work makes me want to jump in behind them and glean what’s left in the fields.

It was on a tip-off from Alan Jacobs that I read Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, a book that also falls into that wonderful category of ‘books that make me want to write,’ though this version is closer to the way The Writing Life (Annie Dillard) or Art and Fear (David Bayles and Ted Orland) makes me want to write–through encouragement and explicit description of the craft.

It took a day to read Kleon’s book, and I did so mostly hovering at the edges of the classroom while students were working on other tasks, but it’s advice was encouraging and inspirational and grounded in reality. This is someone who lives in the real world and does work I might be able to do, not a best-selling novelist pretending readers can achieve the same thing.

Two ideas stood out as advice I could use.

1. Share your work

In terms of media, I’d quit using my blog years ago and had reduced my Twitter activity to random jokes. But Kleon focuses his advice on sharing work: “Show just a little bit of what you’re working on.” It’s a slight tweak to the perspective I had, but I realize it makes a ton of difference. My work includes my efforts teaching in the high school classroom, my study of the Bible and my teaching it in Bible studies, my reading, and my for-publication writing projects. It’s all my “work,” and that is the stuff I should share–not just the jokes. When I began my blog I posted personal stories, in essence an open journal, but when I chose to stop that, the purpose for the blog ceased. This simple refocus has me recognizing the way my blog can be of use to me, how it can compliment my work.

Kleon writes more about this in his other little book, Show Your Work, encouraging the reader to share one thing every day, be it a blog post or a tweet. I think I can do that. On a given day I definitely have one idea, one thought, one snippet I can share on this blog or on Twitter that is related to my work. If nothing else, such an exercise will help me want to do the work, as it will keep it in the forefront of my mind.

2. Write the book you want to read.

Kleon writes, “The best advice is not to write what you know, it’s to write what you like.” Though it took me a while to discover it, Books and Culture was a revelation to me, because I read in John Wilson’s magazine exactly the kind of work I wished I’d been writing. I never wrote for John, but when I write reviews for The Curator, it’s usually a pursuit of what I liked best in Books and Culture and what I still like best elsewhere.

In the same category, Kleon also advises, “Do the work you want to see done.” I don’t know that I have any business writing a book, but in my study of 1 and 2 Samuel I was dissatisfied with how little I could find exploring Joab, son of Zeruiah. I am very much toying with writing the book on Joab that I’d like to read.

I don’t know if it will work out, but if I can keep up with the first item I mentioned here, I’ll be sure to let folks know.

The Bourne Identity: The Best Action Flick There Is

This is my example for the best movie ever essay my sophomores are working on. I have invited them to argue what they think is the best, but clearly I’m a biased reader. I posted this essay as a Google Doc with comments pointing out to students what I was doing.

In a dark theater, in an intense moment of  The Bourne Identity, my mother-in-law clutched her popcorn in a death grip. A man was sneaking behind the amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne, and it was not clear whether Bourne was aware of his presence. Unable to watch him die, my mother-in-law broke down the fourth wall and called to Jason: “Watch out behind you!” The moment created one of the great memories of our family’s history added one more anecdote proving that The Bourne Identity is the greatest action movie ever made.

Part of what makes The Bourne Identity so  good is the way it is full of regular people doing amazing things. While Matt Damon has immortalized the role, Brad Pitt was actually offered it first but turned it down because he was busy with other films  (“Bourne Identity Trivia”). This was good for the film because Pitt, while a great actor, would not have brought the same Everyman sense that Damon brings to a role. With Damon, viewers are able to believe (for a couple hours anyway) he is a normal guy who is surprised to discover he’s a trained assassin. But the sense of regular people carries into the other characters.  Critic David Edelstein argues that Marie, the innocent bystander who gets wrapped into Bourne’s adventures, “seems to be having the time of her life,” which is precisely what the viewer is doing even as they imagine themselves in her place. It is the juxtaposition of these normal-seeming people with extraordinary situations that creates excitement a viewer can imagine being a part of.

Yet while the everydayness of the characters adds a sense of believability, one could definitely argue that Bourne’s amnesia, which continues throughout the film, is hardly realistic. Bourne doesn’t know who he is but he knows everything he’s ever learned about being a modern spy and soldier. Would a person’s memory really work like that? This is part of what critic J. Hoberman is getting at when he describes t he “general superfluity” of the film. But while this rejection of the amnesia’s premise has validity , it does not necessarily follow that the amnesia ruins the film. With the height of the excitement in The Bourne Identity, who cares whether there are any cited cases of this kind of amnesia? Viewers are given the key quandary with an immediate  inciting moment, as wonder with Bourne himself why he is floating on the sea with bullets in his back. From there the movie never relents, piling mysterious complication upon mysterious complication, withholding the climax until the last moments of the movie. With such nonstop intensity, critic David Edelstein claims, “it doesn’t give you time to reflect on the inanit y . . . of its premise.” It moves so fast, in fact, that viewers are likely to miss even fundamental mistakes. In the opening scene, when the fisherman cuts open Bourne’s wetsuit to reveal his bullet wounds, Bourne is wearing only the wetsuit (as is normal). Yet for the first half of the film following the boat-scene, Bourne wears a sweater with b ullet holes in the back–a preposterous situation since he was not wearing the sweater when he was shot (“Bourne Identity Goofs”). Does a viewer mind such things? No, because the pace of film’s action is so quick few of them will even notice such basic mistakes.

Not that the film is full of such mistakes; in fact, the film’s flawless and creative chase scenes are what sets it so far apart from other action movies. In one of the most memorable scenes in the film, Jason Bourne escapes from the United States embassy in Switzerland. The  paradox of a man escaping from such a highly secure building (dozens of Marines are sprinting to catch him the entire time), single-handedly and without running or looking stressed, creates a thrill. And the directors have made sure nothing interferes with the thrill. For example, to ease the feelings of any conflicted viewers who would not want to see innocent American soldiers or security guards harmed, Bourne never kills any of them, only knocking them cold and leaving them behind. Thus, part of what works in this film is it “summons up a thriller era when the only people who ever seemed to die were spies, counterspies, and the odd, overweening dictato r” (Edelstein). In fact, by the time the movie ends,  only eight people die (“Bourne Identity Trivia”), showing blood and gore is not the essential ingredient to a great action film.

W ith such creative action occuring at such an intense pace to seemingly regular people, The Bourne Identity succeeds as no other action movie has. My m other-in-law might have enjoyed worrying over Jason Bourne’s safety, but she need not have. His spot as the ultimate action hero is still secure.


The Niche Future of Handwriting

My handwriting has never lived up to the Romantic achievements of my parents. My mother’s unique script, a print-and-cursive hybrid, is round and smooth, filling the space between lines as if it were all canvas for her use. My father’s is notable for the way the extension of the capital G on my first name made a small end table. My own handwriting has always served me well, as it is legible, but neither has it left me feeling distinguished, or mature: it is a pragmatic riff on standard elementary print. I round the e’s a bit more than Mrs. Spaulding said we should and I’m inconsistent with the size of my letters, but if I’m attempting to be neat, it’s basically what she taught me.

To confirm my suspicions, I learned from Anne Trubek’s The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting that Edgar Allan Poe would have loved my parents and thought me a bore. “Poe,” writes Trubek, “felt those who wrote as they had been instructed were less original than those whose handwriting departed from what they were taught in school.”

Trubeck would chastise me for my self-consciousness, defending me for the same reasons and in the same way she defends her son, whose penmanship drew the ire of his elementary teachers. Her central thrust is that attitudes like Poe’s are sentimental associations, that examining handwriting is not a window into a soul.

But my problem is I like my sentimental associations.

I’m not alone. We might think of Poe as an eccentric and slightly irrelevant ancestor, but some of our ideas about handwriting are closely related to his. Take Dyana Herron’s thoughts about the beauty of a handwritten letter as an example:

There’s something great about receiving a letter, even just the tactile materials, the ink or graphite on paper, and the author’s handwriting, not just their words in Times New Roman or Arial. There’s something powerful, too, about reading words that were created by hand just for you, not for anyone else, and sent off to be read by your eyes only. It’s like receiving a gift, an act of love.

Herron captures how our love for this kind of letter is difficult to express: “there’s something great” and “wonderful,” but we can’t say precisely what. Yet we do interpret it as love, and we see the handwriting as more intimately part of the author than “just their words” are.

David Foster Wallace taps into the same notion in a drafted preface for The Pale King: “Author here. Meaning the actual author, the real human holding the pencil, not any sort of abstract narrative persona.” Since Wallace wrote his manuscripts by hand the comment may have been a simple description of the scene, but even then, “holding the pencil” builds a firmer image of a real person than “the real human tapping the keys.” A person with a pencil makes the words more intimate, more personal, more real.

Ideas like these are why I advise my students to handwrite thank you notes, yet this ultimately is perception, a sense of a cultural symbol, and despite its associations, Trubek asserts that “medieval scribes proved that handwriting does not, in and of itself, reveal personality or the self.”

She further demonstrates this by revealing our shifting sentiments. Take, for example, the theory of cursive evangelist Austin Palmer, who claimed “penmanship training ranks among the most valuable aids in reforming ‘bad’ children” and that penmanship “is the initial step in the reform of many a delinquent.” Would anyone declare that today? Nor would anyone declare that typewritten correspondence, as opposed to handwritten, is insulting or unprofessional; but that is what people believed at the turn of the 20th Century. If our opinions about handwriting as a revelation of our intimate selves didn’t surface until the turn of the 19th Century, as Trubek asserts, can we really stand by them?

Trubek’s thesis is that we live in an era of transition from one technology to another, that handwriting’s dominance is finished and that, with time, the sentimental attachments people like me assign to it will dwindle and become like Socrates’s argument against writing: an intriguing artifact.

Yet even as I recognize the merits of Trubek’s case against handwriting as an expression of psychology, I find myself questioning her confidence in handwriting’s demise. Her focus is the longform world of handwriting–the letter, the business correspondence, the novel. These forms have migrated to digital media, but does that mean that handwriting is an obsolete technology?

I’m slow to admit it, which isn’t surprising, since in my left pocket I carry a 3.25”x4.5” notebook, and in my right, a pen. Neither are fancy, and I don’t protect them from damage, but they’re useful to me, because if I have an idea, if I hear something interesting, if I think of something I need to do, I can jot it down. My students, in contrast, typically write such things in the notes app on their phone, or they take a picture of it. I’ve written a single due date on the board in a classroom and had students snap a photo rather than write the date in a calendar app or a planner. Judging by the excuse parade every due date, it’s a no better than the old technology; but it’s the dominant way, so should I adopt their method? Should I abandon pen and paper in favor of digital devices?

I don’t think so, partly because when it comes to the tech my students prefer (and to be realistic I should include my peers and elders), I personally doubt my ability to overcome the beautiful temptations of Silicon Valley. What engineer Tristan Harris told The Atlantic’s Bianca Bosker rings in my ear as warning bell:

“You could say that it’s my responsibility” to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, . . . “but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.”

I don’t need a smartphone, and I primarily see downsides in what my life would look like with one: I’d jot a note about what I need to accomplish later (“Sarah’s recommendation letter!”) but would check Twitter just because; I would see that red circle with a “2” on my Gmail icon, so I wouldn’t be able to black the screen until I knew what was in there. Whatever I had been thinking before I had pulled that phone out would be gone.

So when I began to consider ideas for this essay, I opened a composition book and wrote my ideas with a pen. I thought without notifications. I kept thinking even when I got stuck, since I couldn’t run to Twitter or Feedly while I waited for inspiration.

And I’m not alone in my choice. Alan Jacobs, who has thought about these technologies much more than I have, has moved even much of his longform writing to pen and paper for reasons of efficiency and clarity: “When I am writing my thoughts in a notebook I think better — that’s all there is to it. I have a clearer mind and a clearer prose style when I hold a pen in my hand.” Jacobs is describing not a sentimental image of himself but a focus, a freedom from the structure of screens and the web, a reason related to my own avoidance of a smartphone. Both of us are seeing what Nicholas Carr describes in The Glass Cage, that aspects of these technologies do not “extend our productive capabilities without circumscribing our scope of action and perception.” The trade-offs of the digital technology in these areas are too high.

One trait a handwritten technology has going for it, then, is its lack of distraction. Yet I also find my notebook lends me flexibility of form. As I attempt to shape an idea, before I can articulate it, I find myself able to think more widely, more flexibly, with a pen and paper. I do not have to list ideas in a word processor’s bland outlines but can use indents and margins in whatever ways seem appropriate. I can sketch arrows, stars, and circles without clicking on icons. I recognize there is likely some software to enable me to do such things, but is it standard? Would it be on my phone? When I begin to write the article on a computer, would I be able to spread my plan beside me like I’ve done with my notebook as I type this?

Then, of course, there is every professor’s favorite research, the studies suggesting students who take notes by hand instead of by typing actually retain material longer and understand concepts more thoroughly. This is what Rusty Hawkins, a history professor at the John Wesley Honors College at Indiana Wesleyan, explains to his students each semester when he bans laptops from his classes. “The funny thing is,” Hawkins says, “no one ever complains about the ban. Ever.”

Hawkins notes that irony of his students’ acceptance of pen and paper arises from the assumption of digital’s dominance: “We’ve been bombarded with all this info about the coming digital natives, but my students hate reading things digitally. They all prefer having hard copies of articles or books in front of them.”

I’ve noticed similar ironies in my own high school classes. Each year I tell my AP language and composition students they have to use one of my methods for their research paper’s notes. I then offer the traditional index-card method, Zotero, and a format I’ve created that uses a word processor. This year more than half my students opted for the index cards, despite my introducing the method with a story of why I quit using them myself.

Which all means that despite Trubek’s pronouncement of its demise, handwriting still functions as a uniquely pragmatic technology. We can take freeform notes with it, we can access it quickly (no need to load an app, just open the notebook and click the pen), and if we use a sensible system (like a bullet journal or commonplace book), we can retrieve and review materials easily and with minimal distraction.

I’ll admit I’m still cradling under my vest a romantic attachment to handwriting. I wrote a letter to my aunt recently and used a pen and small stationary, to make it more personal and loving.

But I’ll also admit Anne Trubek has exposed my sentimental notions for what they are and that my wider behavior confirms her central claim. I have not hand-written a rough draft of an essay in 15 years. I started a few but each time grew impatient with my fingers, opting to finish the work on a word processor. Even in the classroom, I rarely use a pen to mark students’ papers for more than a brief moment, choosing instead to type my comments into a Word document, which I attach to their paper as a kind of rubric. For me, where speed and revision are priorities, digital technology wins.

Still . . . I remember my dad’s cool G’s primarily because every morning he’d write my initials in three capital letters on my brown paper lunch bag. No app can replace that. So while handwriting has lost its writing monopoly, it still serves a number of pragmatic purposes, ones I am convinced will remain relevant longer than many have assumed.