The Portable Writing Teacher

Writing TeachersEvery writer I know, when asked how to become a writer, responds with one word: Read. Marilynne Robinson

 A reader commented on my previous article, “The Writer as (Performing) Artist,” saying that it was sad to see some first-time writers get “shredded” by critics. “Some of these folks don’t have much help, and some have very little education, and yet, they have an interesting story to tell.”

 Most of us, from the earliest grades of elementary school, have had dismal experiences in learning how to write, and too many talented individuals have been “shredded” by these ordeals to the point that they abandon what might have been a cherished dream of becoming a writer. Writing teachers range from the ignorant to the uninspired to the downright cruel; a good one is about as rare as a sighting of the tooth fairy. Writing instruction, when it actually exists in any curricular sense, usually features unimaginative exercises, the propagation of rules that stifle creativity, and “suggested” writing topics that stimulate eye-rolling in even the most fervent students.

 I cannot recall, from all my years of formal education, primary school to graduate school, one teacher who came within two light years of inspiring me or encouraging me or mentoring me as a writer. I have to admit that my dreary lack of enthusiasm and my discouraging deficiency in skill might have been the reasons I was overlooked. Nevertheless, I would confidently venture to declare that for any of my classmates who did possess talent and a passion for writing, it was not academic writing instruction that ignited the fires of their creative furnaces.

 But I did learn to write. When I was in graduate school, I knew that my writing was mediocre at best; it was certainly far below the level of quality required to produce acceptable academic papers. And I had no idea how to improve it. If there were free writing workshops on campus at the time, I was unaware of their existence, and I would have been too ashamed to seek help anyway. Yet when it came time to begin producing my first term papers, I made a startling and delightful discovery: I could write!

 Graduate students are required to read a large number of books and journal articles, for classes and for research, over the course of one semester. During the first three months of my first real semester (I had spent a year messing around while I waited for my thesis supervisor to return from sabbatical), I had unwittingly absorbed—by some miracle of osmosis—from the authors I had been reading, the academic writing skills I needed in order to turn out a good graduate paper. I could structure an argument and articulate a point of view; I could use a quote correctly; and I had begun to build a lexicon of the academic jargon au courant in the late 1980s.

 I have to admit that I did already have one leg up, so to speak. I was fortunate to be in possession of a full set of the grammatical tools required to write an effective sentence. When I was in junior high school I discovered that I loved grammar; I ate up every lesson we were given on the subject and spat it out complete on whatever grammar test we had to write at the end. I have kept that toolbox intact and have added to it over the years.

 This combination of skills enabled me to write excellent papers and a solid MA thesis. But it was the recognition of the value to a writer of extensive and intensive reading that led to the belief that I could write well, as well as those academic authors who were my first real writing teachers. When I decided fifteen years later that I wanted to be a full-time writer, dozens of teachers appeared as if by magic to encourage, inspire, and mentor me. And they are with me all the time, standing in my library waiting to be recalled into service.

 Let me be clear: What we read does not have to be academic; the authors I read in preparation for my term papers and my thesis were what I needed for those specific tasks. Now I read everything that interests me, from Karen Armstrong to Pat Conroy, from Vancouver Magazine to The New York Times to my parish bulletin. And they are all my teachers.

 Again, we writers are fortunate. Even the commenter’s first-time writers can acquire all the skills and the tools they need from the public library and (if they are discerning) from the Internet. Granted, very few of us like the tedious process involved in learning the correct use of the conditional, in knowing when to use the subjective and objective cases of pronouns, in recognizing a misplaced modifier or a pronoun without a referent. But I am pretty sure that Artur Rubinstein and Oscar Peterson were not crazy about endlessly practising scales and studying harmonic theory, and look what became of those two little boys.


Image Credit

“Robinson & Demarchelier” by S. Tore. Creative Commons Flickr. Some rights reserved.

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