A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

Category: Quotes

Dostoevsky’s passion and conviction as something we do not permit ourselves

The big thing that makes Dostoevsky invaluable for American readers and writers is that he appears to possess degrees of passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we–here, today–cannot or do not permit ourselves. Joseph Frank does an admirable job of tracing out the interplay of factors that made this engagement possible–FMD’s own beliefs and talents, the ideological and aesthetic climates of his day, etc. Upon his finishing Frank’s books, though, I think that any serious American reader/writer will find himself driven to think hard about what exactly it is that makes many of the novelists of our own place and time look so thematically shallow and lightweight, so morally impoverished, in comparison to Gogol or Dostoevsky (or even to lesser lights like Lermontov and Turgenev). Frank’s bio prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of them or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or incongruous juxtaposition, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit.

– David Foster Wallace, “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky,” published 22 years ago. Does it still hold true? I’m not well-read enough to say, but work like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad doesn’t strike me as falling into this description.




DFW on college writers’ most common error: self-absorption

As rhetoric, this sort of attitude works only in sermons to the choir, and as pedagogy it’s disastrous, and in terms of teaching writing it’s especially bad because it commits precisely the error that most Freshman Composition classes spend all semester trying to keep kids from making–the error of presuming the very audience-agreement that it is really their rhetorical job to earn. This kind of mistake results more from a habit of mind than from any particular false premise–it is a function not of fallacy or ignorance but of self-absorption. It also happens to be the most persistent and damaging error that most college writers make, and one so deeply rooted that it often takes several essays and conferences and revisions to get them to even see what the problem is. Helping them eliminate the error involves drumming into student writers two big injunctions: (1) Do not presume that the reader can read your mind–anything that you want the reader to visualize or consider or conclude, you must provide; (2) Do not presume that the reader feels the same way that you do about a given experience or issue–your argument cannot just assume as true the very things you’re trying to argue for.

Because (1) and (2) seem so simple and obvious, it may surprise you to know that they are actually incredibly hard to get students to understand in such a way that the principles inform their writing. The reason for the difficulty is that, in the abstract, (1) and (2) are intellectual, whereas in practice they are more things of the spirit. The injunctions require of the student both the imagination to conceive of the reader as a separate human being and the empathy to realize that this separate person has preferences and confusions and beliefs of her own, p/c/b’s that are just as deserving of respectful consideration as the writer’s. More, (1) and (2) require of students the humility to distinguish between a universal truth (“This is the way things are, and only an idiot would disagree”) and something that the writer merely opines (“My reasons for recommending this are as follows:”). These sorts of requirements are, of course, also the elements of a Democratic Spirit. I therefore submit that the hoary cliche “Teaching the student to write is teaching the student to think” sells the enterprise way short. Thinking isn’t even half of it. (106, FN 59)

Wallace, David Foster. “Authority and American Usage.” Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. Little, Brown, 2006.

Is the ideal product of 21st Century learning a robot?

Our great universities, with their vast resources, their exhaustive libraries, look like a humanist’s dream. Certainly, with the collecting and archiving that has taken place in them over centuries, they could tell us much that we need to know. But there is pressure on them now to change fundamentally, to equip our young to be what the Fabians used to call “brain workers.” They are to be skilled laborers in the new economy, intellectually nimble enough to meet its needs, which we know will change constantly and unpredictably. I may simply have described the robots that will be better suited to this kind of existence, and with whom our optimized workers will no doubt be forced to compete, poor complex and distractible creatures that they will be still.

That is from Marilynne Robinson’s essay “What Are We Doing Here?” and her observation that the optimum results of our current approach to education are to create computers less capable than the robots we’re building should chill teachers who have grown used to hearing advocacy for “21st Century Learning.” Do people really advocate for what Robinson suggests they do? Here’s a typical jargon-filled example, from Karen Cator, former Director of the Office of Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education:

Success in the 21st century requires knowing how to learn. Students today will likely have several careers in their lifetime. They must develop strong critical thinking and interpersonal communication skills in order to be successful in an increasingly fluid, interconnected, and complex world. Technology allows for 24/7 access to information, constant social interaction, and easily created and shared digital content. In this setting, educators can leverage technology to create an engaging and personalized environment to meet the emerging educational needs of this generation. No longer does learning have to be one-size-fits-all or confined to the classroom. The opportunities afforded by technology should be used to re-imagine 21st-century education, focusing on preparing students to be learners for life.

It’s that last line that most clearly grasp’s Robinson’s point: “learners for life” means “intellectually nimble.”

Writing without Self-Absorption

Writing demands a certain amount of introspection. But introspection doesn’t have to become self-absorption. In my own writing life, I have found that writing can be a means toward blessed self-forgetfulness. As I get absorbed in a subject I’m writing about, find that I am freed from self-absorption–and I am able to do good work. When I stop asking “What will my reader think of me?” I start asking, “What will my reader think about this person or event or idea I’m writing about?” And good things start to happen. I don’t live in that place all the time. I don’t even live there most of the time. But I don’t get much good writing done when I’m not in that place.

Jonathan Rogers

Writing thoughts from George Saunders & Margaret Atwood

One thing I found was—maybe it’s more about my approach to storytelling. It’s so simple. You’re in a scene, and you kind of have a vague idea of what the scene is supposed to do, but you’re mostly having fun within that scene. You’re trying to make the lines work, trying to have a nice pace, trying to get some jokes in.

You’re working closely within the text on its own merits. Almost like cooking to taste. At some point it will spit out a plot point.

So, say a bunch of people are sitting around a table talking, and one of them is really grouchy because it’s funny. And you go, “I wonder why he’s so grouchy?” At some point he says he hasn’t eaten in a day. And you go, “Ah!” So the next talking point is: Get that guy some food.

It’s nothing really theoretical, it’s coming out of the natural energy of the piece. And then, having done that, you might want to look upstream to the proceeding section. Why hasn’t that guy eaten in two days?

All storytelling is kind of that—there’s a bit of text that you put pressure on that spits out some desire that a character has and then you follow that. The other part is that every scene raises an expectation in the reader’s mind—that’s part of its job is to make you look in and be curious.

The next thing kind of satisfies that, it’s entertaining, but it does that whole process over again. You can see a whole book as a series of creating an expectation and then delivering a skew on that expectation so it’s not totally satisfied.

–          George Saunders

Not all of my ideas have been amazing. Some have not, NOT worked out! As they say (I think it was Beckett): try, fail. Try again, fail better. Or something like that. We have all had projects that have ended up as smashed eggs on the floor.

–          Margaret Atwood


Saying, “Good for you. Proceed.”

In My Writing Education: A Time Line, Saunders narrates his literary adventures in the Syracuse Creative Writing Program back in the 1980s. He pays particular attention to the generosity of two of his instructors: the short story impresario/memoirist Tobias Wolff and the novelist Douglas Unger. Saunders conjured up that pervasive form of graduate school angst – wanting desperately to impress, while obsessing desperately over potentially being a fool. What stands out is the generosity of “Doug” and “Toby” – how they received criticism as well as gave it, and how they managed to critique their students while promoting their dignity and potential. The whole article rewards a read, but allow me to highlight Saunders’ conclusion:

Why do we love our writing teachers so much? Why, years later, do we think of them with such gratitude? I think it’s because they come along when we need them most, when we are young and vulnerable and are tentatively approaching this craft that our culture doesn’t have much respect for, but which we are beginning to love. They have so much power. They could mock us, disregard us, use us to prop themselves up. But our teachers, if they are good, instead do something almost holy, which we never forget: they take us seriously. They accept us as new members of the guild. They tolerate the under-wonderful stories we write, the dopy things we say, our shaky-legged aesthetic theories, our posturing, because they have been there themselves.

We say: I think I might be a writer.

They say: Good for you. Proceed.

When I read a writer like George Saunders, at the top of his game, it is easy to presume that there has always been an air of inevitability about his eventual success. But how many people simply drop out, because someone eviscerates them with criticism or starves them with neglect? Especially in those pivotal moments, when their talent is underdeveloped, and their psyches are as brittle as eggshells? How deeply do we crave for someone to say to us, or over us, “Good for you. Proceed.” And perhaps, at times, to say it, even when they don’t necessarily fully see it.

Larry Parsley

“Our fear can drive us to destroy somebody for being on the wrong side of the mob”

“I think the scariest thing to me is humanity, it’s people. It’s what we’re capable of when we have permission from the people around us. We’re capable of the worst monstrosities that any kind of demon you can drum up in the film, so this one, sort of taking on the ideas of racism, is just one example of that. But I plan to do more movies that explore the human demon, as I call it. It is dark, we are dark. We have the ability to scapegoat. Our fear can drive us to destroy somebody for fear of being on the wrong side of the mob.”

Jordan Peele