A Teacher's Writes

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

Tag: writing

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.


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

Artists need to live modestly

It takes time. This means that you need to find that time. Don’t be too social. Live below your means and keep the means modest (people with trust funds and other cushions: I’m not talking to you, though money makes many, many things easy, and often, vocation and passion harder). You probably have to do something else for a living at the outset or all along, but don’t develop expensive habits or consuming hobbies. I knew a waitress once who thought fate was keeping her from her painting but taste was: if she’d given up always being the person who turned going out for a burrito into ordering the expensive wine at the bistro she would’ve had one more free day a week for art.

– from Rebecca Solnit’s tips on how to be a writer. Many of them are good, but this one is the one I haven’t heard elsewhere. And she’s right.

The act of writing as a shaper of complicated thinking

One of the wonderful things about writing, for me, is the ways in which the world becomes more complicated once it starts coming together on a screen, on paper. Actually most times I write by hand first, and then type after, for a variety of reasons. One of which is there is something very tactile about the experience, the act of holding something in hand, and moving across a page, the actual movement in which I’m more intimately bound rather than just typing away. That does something to me creatively in terms of ideas coming, in terms of even the architecture of a project. But also it gets me away from perfectionism or the self-loathing that too often hovers over and hinders and even smothers my work. The screen brings the constant illusion of perfection. I have notes on concert programs, napkins, restaurant menus, scraps of paper, newspapers . . . I always date them and I love looking through them. Partially it’s to protect myself, so if I stumble on a piece of writing where it’s echoed I know I haven’t taken it, or if I have I would have to give acknowledgment.

With the act of writing, the world can sometimes become so complicated that many times I’m not sure what I believe about something. Time and time again, my beliefs will change as I begin writing. For instance, when the election happened, I quickly said, “Oh these are the reasons for Trump’s win,” and as I began writing—just writing to a writer friend or friends who asked me to explain to them what happened—as I began writing, I began to recognize that it’s a lot more complicated than I thought. And people are more complicated than I thought. Suddenly, the pen outpaces the emotions or the mood. I feel that so often that my immediate response to something is a mood, whereas once I begin writing my response becomes more than mood. It becomes, in a thought, more engaged emotions. So writing becomes a way to remind myself that human beings are irreducibly complex and that they’re deserving of much more than the reductionisms that are often given to them.

Garnette Cadogan

A bit of why I enjoy writing for a little magazine

The Curator hopes to embrace how little magazines tend to treat their writers. Little magazines aren’t just an experimental playground removed from the larger culture, but can operate as a writerly gym, a place to train a writer’s artistic and critical muscles. As Michael Anania, former editor of Audit/Poetry and director of the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, has said:

“Little magazines have always functioned primarily for writers. Readers are desirable, sometimes even actively sought out, but the impulse behind most magazines is the writer-editor’s conviction that there are writers who are not being served by existing publications. At their best, little magazines draw together groups of writers and, however marginally, find them an audience.[5]

Being small, The Curator can care about its writers, serve them, stretch them, train them, receive gifts from them—provide a community to work on how you work with words. Every little magazine hopes to publish the best of what it can, but small magazines like us have the capacity to say: Give us your poor, your tired, your hungry, your zombie-ish words. Let’s work on them. Let’s see if they can be resurrected.

Adam Joyce, at The Curator

Alan Jacobs hopes all his writing has a similar feel

I have tried for a long time to write academic works that are vivid, interesting, challenging …  Of course, I’ve tried to do the same thing in my nonacademic writing; in fact, I’d like to believe that as my career has gone on there’s been a kind of convergence on a similar impetus, a similar character, a similar style or feel.

What is it that all of my writing has in common, or that I would like for it to all have in common? I think primarily it’s that it should offer some of the same structural, organizational, and linguistic pleasures – yes, pleasures – that fiction has, or the personal essay. Even in my most theoretical work, I’ve tried to think of my task as that of attracting and keeping the attention of thoughtful readers, telling them stories, doling out fascinating details that make them want to read more, keeping them to some degree in suspense until the end of any given tale. Storytelling is, for me, the fundamental mode of writing; it’s the foundation on which everything else is built. In that sense I don’t think of writing works of literary theory as being different altogether in kind from writing a personal narrative. It’s all about trying to reach human readers, writing to them as their fellow human being. Insofar as I have had any success as a writer, I really do think that it is primarily due to my keeping that goal in mind.

– Alan Jacobs – “On Writing for Readers

An unexpected mission: Newspaper adviser

I didn’t mean to become who I am. Not that anyone else means it particularly, but sometimes you come across a person who seems to have figured out their future at the end of kindergarten. Take Dr. Jack Bacon, a NASA engineer who spoke at the TIE Conference this year: in elementary school he carried a lunch box with a picture of a rocket blasting to a space station. Now, he carries his headset in that same lunch box when he heads to work–for the team that created the international space station.

Not meaning to become who I am does not mean I am disappointed with the results, however. Early dreams of playing baseball, talking on the radio, and coaching died away as I grew up and learned more about those jobs and my own life.  They were good dreams, but they are not as important as I thought they would be.

As I grew new dreams emerged–like noble fatherhood, for example. It’s not something a young man dreams about, but it is something a young dad can envision. Yet there are also things that pop up in life that one never expects, things you pick up along the way not because you dream it, but because it just happens.

I happened to pick up the label technology expert, a label achieved by knowing a few things about blogs and wikis that my colleagues did not know. I don’t particularly like computers, but communicating is awfully cool and these were tools of communication, so I’d thrown myself at them–immersing myself in their workings, over-committing my time and energy to their development, eventually growing tired of it all and settling into a normalized use of them as tools. The formula was strangely familiar to the ones I applied to my childhood dreams: baseball was fun so I obsessed over it until baseball was life; eventually I realized it wasn’t.

Earlier this year another little surprise emerged. The colleague who puts together the school newspaper took a job elsewhere and I was asked if I was interested. I was presumably asked because I like to write and because it was thought I might enjoy the software side of things (they use InDesign, which I’ve never touched). At no point had I pictured myself as the newspaper guy. The thought never occurred to me. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I liked it, and now I am the newspaper guy.

Within days I’d wasted entire planning periods cooking up ideas with a colleague, threatening to destroy myself by repeating the same ol’ plot of total immersion, enthusiastic overcommitment, exhaustion, and pull back. Realizing that I want to break that formulaic story, that I want to focus my energy, and that I want to prevent extraneous ideas from drawing me into good but non-essential activities, I spent a bit of time considering what my mission, or objective, will be for the newspaper. Not only is my hope that a mission statement will keep me focused, but that it will help me to communicate to others what we are trying to do and why.

So far, this is what that mission looks like.

As an adviser, I am convinced that the newspaper’s main goal is to provide students an audience for their work. When I say work I mean it in a broad sense, wanting it to include many forms of communication, be it reporting-style writing to short stories to poetry, to photography and art work. Perhaps it can include work I have not fathomed or considered. For me, the genre or type of work is far less important than the audience. I want to seize upon the opportunity to create audience, because there are forms of work at which students are engaged where audience is a fundamental necessity. One writes that others may read and snaps a photograph that others may see. A classroom, unfortunately yet understandably, struggles to capture audience, even as within its walls these audience-dependent forms are taught. The newspaper thus compliments the school’s endeavors by providing opportunity for some students to be heard.

With that goal in mind, one of my first and biggest priorities is to work out a way for the print edition of the newspaper to be distributed to the student-body free of charge. Currently it is sold for 50 cents a copy, and as beautiful and well assembled as it is, it is read by a shockingly small audience, consisting, to my unofficial observation, mostly of staff members, who each receive a free copy of it. Even if this would require us to resume printing on newspaper print, I think it would be worthwhile (currently the paper is printed on fairly nice paper stock, in color). In college our student-newspaper came out every Friday about mid-morning, free of charge, and everybody I knew grabbed a copy of it and had it mostly read by Friday night. If we can nurture an effect like that here, we will have created a relevant compliment to education.

For students on my staff, when it exists (and I’ll need to recruit one), this will be their mission as well–to gain an audience. Yet for them, the goals they will be setting to pursue the mission will be different. They will not be worried about the printing costs or the budget as much as about their content and presentation (at least at first–if the staff grew large I could disperse business responsibilities as well). In that way, the second mission of the newspaper enters.

The staff of the newspaper will seek to provide for the school’s community relevant and interesting content. Like the work mentioned previously, the content is broadly defined to mean anything that can be conveyed in a printed format for an audience to consume. Relevant ends up being the crucial term here.

Relevant means timely, for example. Printing an article about how the football season ended up is not relevant if printed weeks after the season ended.

Similarly, relevant also meets a need. If the audience for the most part is fully aware of something, like what the plays will be this coming year, there is no need to re-publish it in the newspaper. The readers of the paper do not need to read such an article, because they already know what it says. It’s a newspaper, but such items are not new; if the paper wants to print such things, it should fight for the chance to break those stories, so the audience has a need to read the paper.

Relevant also encompasses perspective. This is a school newspaper, which means the readers are concerned with students’ perspectives and concerns. Students have a unique angle to provide on events and can cover things from state elections to school events to American Idol competitions with viewpoints that their audience wants to hear.

Personally I am bubbling with ideas for the paper. To compliment both missions, I would like to create an online version of the paper. The purpose of the online edition would not be to republish online that which is already printed, but to publish exclusive content that we otherwise could not bring to the audience in a relevant manner. Activities and breaking news are primarily what I have in mind: 250-word summaries of sporting events published within 24 hours of their completion; previews of upcoming matches including interviews with coaches and players; activities’ announcements and current events (like, “Hey, in three days the construction company is going to close off the parking for the next year and a half”). Such content, because relevant, will bring readers, and for me, the adviser and teacher, providing that audience is the point.

Fittingly, I say to you as always, thanks for reading.


Newspaper on Flickr by: jamesjyu