• April 16, 2014

Feeling Fake in the Classroom

"Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus' son Achilleus
and its devastation …"

That's the beginning of Richmond Lattimore's translation of The Iliad. Other translators render the opening lines differently, but the poem always begins with an invocation, a plea to the Muse for her divine help.

An anthropologist might note that in a society that worshiped a boatload of gods and goddesses, a poet would naturally ask the appropriate one to help him tell a long, noble story. Every activity involved buttering up one deity or another. A scholar of rhetoric might point out that invoking the Muse lends considerable weight to the poem: "This ain't just old Homer talking here, pal—this is Calliope, an honest-to-Zeus goddess, that you're listenin' to." After that opener, you can bet would-be hecklers kept their pie-holes shut.

But I think Homer was just being realistic. Why not credit the story to a goddess? Genuine inspiration makes as much sense to me as any other explanation for the origin of strings of words, particularly when the strings are long, complex, and beautiful.

Of course, one can't say that to students when one teaches composition. No; the composition instructor has to talk about writing processes, prewriting activities, outlines, plans, theses, topic sentences, drafts, and lots of other things. And I do talk about those things, as clearly and explicitly as I know how. But sometimes I feel like a fraud and worry that everything I tell students about writing is a lie wrapped in academic double talk.

Here's my biggest problem with teaching composition: I have no idea where good sentences come from. Most of the time, strings of words just appear in my noggin. When I'm stuck for a word, phrase, or clause, I wait awhile, and what I need floats up from my subconscious. I don't know what's happening while I wait for words. Somewhere, scads of neurons are working hard, but I can't see that work going on. The genesis of sentences remains a perfect mystery to me.

I don't have a writing process, unless we count Mark Twain's advice: "The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction." I've done a lot of composing while driving and some while pushing a lawn mower. Sure, I sometimes make crude outlines, sentence fragments slapped on a page lest I forget them. In class, I call that brainstorming and make a big deal out of it. But the real storm happens in a place I cannot see; all I can do is record the results.

I work a little more consciously when I fix the stuff I write, but only a little. I recognize that flaws exist before I can name them. Most of the time, solutions and fixes come from the same mysterious place that produced the original sentences.

Clunky sentence, I think. What are the criteria by which I determine clunkiness? Beats me. I just know it when I see it.

Swap the clauses around, I think. Put the subordinate clause first. Where did that solution come from? Dunno.

"Corpulent" doesn't work, I think. So which word rings true? The neurons kick words around, and I recognize "pudgy" as the right one when it floats up out of the mysterious place.

None of that means that writing is easy for me. I write slowly, I revise a lot, and my brain is tuckered out when I stop. But building an article or a book is never the same kind of methodical, step-by-step process as building a fly rod or replacing the spark plugs in my truck.

During my years in the magazine game, I had occasion to talk shop with lots of people who wrote for a living. When we had time and invigorating beverages, we'd pick at the subject until we got to the big questions: How do we do this? Where does our stuff come from, and how do we make it? And then all we could do was shrug and signal for another round. I can't recall knowing a writer who did the things printed in composition books.

That some goddess pours sentences into my skull seems unlikely. For one thing, I haven't offered a sacrifice lately. No, whatever happens when I write is a process that someone—a neurologist who had plenty of time, perhaps—could explain. But I can't explain it, and I've never read a satisfactory explanation. Composition books talk around the subject; they never get at the heart of it.

When I think about writing, I also think about a gift from a man I never met in person. In the 1990s, I began a correspondence with the great outdoor writer H.G. (Tap) Tapply, whose work for Field & Stream I had enjoyed as a boy and whose son, Bill, no slouch of a writer himself, was the back-page columnist for one of the magazines I edited. Tap and I swapped letters and stories, trout flies and bass bugs, and I eventually persuaded him to let me turn one of his letters and one of his inventions—an elegant little streamer fly made with fluff from a milkweed plant—into an article for the back page of Fly Tyer magazine.

Shortly after the article appeared in print, Tap sent me a little paperback called The Fly Tyer's Handbook, which he'd written in 1939. In the letter that accompanied his gift, Tap said: "Shortly after I got deeply interested in tying I looked for printed guidance and could find only Gregg's How to Tie Flies, I think the title was. But Gregg didn't help much because it told me what to do but not how to do it, so I had to figure things out myself."

Yes: what to do but not how to do it. The books purchased by Comp I students say, "Here is what you want to occur." They tell what to produce; they can't tell how to do it, how to conjure words, sentences, and paragraphs. I wonder if anyone can. But we expect students to plod through the assigned chapters and learn something about assembling text.

All I know about learning to write is that it starts when you're a little kid and happens in pieces for the rest of your life. School seems to have little to do with it, though good grade-school teachers can hammer the rudiments of grammar, usage, and punctuation into your head so that you can build strings of words that make sense to other people. Reading has a lot to do with learning to write, but extracurricular reading has always seemed to me vastly more important than reading assigned by a teacher or professor. When I was a kid, Ray Bradbury and Tap Tapply taught me more about words and sentences than my teachers did. My students today give me the impression that they haven't done a whole lot of extracurricular reading.

Sometimes I suspect, and fear, that learning to write depends on having some innate "facility with words," to use Orwell's term. That's one step short of beginning a composition with, "Sing, goddess." If a person needs some natural facility with words, then what hope is there for most students?

In time, if you want it badly enough, you develop a writing frame of mind, though I can't define what that is with any precision. For me, the writing frame of mind grew out of putting words together for money. I learned to hunt for topics and learned some of the tricks for turning a scrawny idea into an article. As an old friend in the business says, you can't beat fear as a motivator.

If you're lucky, good critics help you see the wretchedness of your work, and if you're luckier still, you eventually learn sufficient detachment to prune your own work as mercilessly as a gardener clips flowers. Then you need practice. Lots of it. As an editor, I've monkeyed with somewhere in excess of five million of other people's words. As a writer, I've inflicted nearly half a million of my own words on the world. When I'm feeling cocky, I think that I know a little about writing. Most of my students haven't written 3,000 words in their lives.

All those reasons are why I sometimes feel like a fake. What really matters in the subject I teach isn't in the book or a lecture or any activity we can do in the classroom, and it can't happen in 14 weeks, though for some people it can start to happen in 14 months. Like the perpetrators of composition books, I can only talk around the subject.

I don't share my misgivings with students. Why discourage them? Nor do I blather about creativity, self-expression, having a special writing place, joining "the community of writers," beginning a "voyage of self-discovery," or other warm and fuzzy aspects of composing. Mostly, I try to teach composition as a learnable craft, a set of skills and tricks that let a person accomplish a job well enough to meet a goal, whether the goal is passing a required course or selling a magazine article. When words come easily, I tell students, enjoy the feeling while it lasts. But when you're stuck and the deadline looms, fall back on tricks that a skillful hack uses to get the job done. Yes, I use the word "hack" and cheerfully admit that I've been one. Students seem to appreciate the honesty.

But most days I still feel like a fraud. I'm generally confident that writing is a craft that can be learned. I grow less confident that it is a craft that can be taught.

Maybe I should just build a small altar in every classroom I use. Perhaps "Sing, goddess" is the right way to begin after all. What kind of offering does the Muse prefer, anyway?

Art Scheck is an English instructor at Tri-County Technical College, in South Carolina.


1. mbelvadi - September 08, 2009 at 07:05 am

People who design "expert systems" have long known about the disconnect between what experts do when they practice their art and how they teach others how to practice their art. Generally, they can't really articulate what they do in their heads, so they attempt to come up with some kinds of rubrics that they can formulate and express as stepwise instructions. What you describe is very much in line with that research. So don't feel bad about it, because the same thing is happening in med schools, engineering schools, and everywhere else that experts are trying to teach the next generation of their profession. By the way, the real answer tends to be similar to foreign language learning - immersion in the work for long periods of time, doing it and absorbing the feedback from having done it. In the case of writing, the old cliches are probably correct, if not satisfactory for today's young people to hear - you develop a "natural" ability to write well by writing a lot and reading a heck of a lot (of well-written prose, not twitters). There just is no shortcut, for most people anyway.

2. berno - September 08, 2009 at 09:24 am

I would say imitation plays a great part in learning how to write. Studying the genesis of a novel like Wuthering Heights for instance seem to confirm that . the Bronté children had read a lot. Imitation can be successfully taped into clasrom activities

3. redweather - September 08, 2009 at 10:20 am

Art, although I think I know what you mean, I don't feel similarly fake. My role as a teacher, or at least so it seems to me, is to help students understand that it's quite possible (and potentially quite enjoyable) to get what is in their hearts and minds on to a piece of paper. I also remind them (constantly) that there are no shortcuts, no quick fixes, no bail-out areas.

I also, as mbelvadi suggests, recommend that they increase the amount of reading they're doing, and I frequently provide them with examples of how reading can help them improve their writing. I also do one other things in the classroom that seems to work quite well.

I'll have them begin a rough draft of an essay in class. While they're doing that, I am at the computer drafting my own essay based on one of the same topics I've given them. But I'm also projecting what I'm doing on the classroom video screen so they can see what I'm doing as I work my way down the page.

Students will often take time out from their own essays to look at what is happening in mine. They'll see me do something and ask why I decided to change a sentence, or delete it, or move it, etc. Sometimes I'm able to provide fairly specific answers; sometimes I'm not. But I think it's important for them to see that the writing process is inherently uncertain, no matter who's doing the writing, and to embrace that inherent uncertainty.

4. mechthild - September 08, 2009 at 10:59 am

If the English LANGUAGE (philology, grammar, etc. with, yes, sentence diagramming) was a required component of the English major, then there'd be a lot less fakery and compositional confusion. As it is, an English major is a misnomer -- it's a literature in English major.

5. new_theologian - September 08, 2009 at 12:46 pm

This is a wonderfully honest article that, to my satisfaction, puts the issue on the table--an issue that cuts to the whole obsession, in accreditation standards, with rubrics and quantification, clearly definable outcomes, etc. Those standards may be able to get us to a grade of "C" or "B", but not to a grade of "A". That grade does not mean--when it comes to writing, and a number of other exercises--merely that one has done everything "correctly," but that one has passed over that indefinable boundary into the "excellent." In writing, this means that one has done something artful, and not merely technically proficient. The latter can be taught, but not the former, as far as I can tell. This is where we need to accept a sportsmanship-like meritocracy in the academy.

Admittedly, I teach theology, not composition, but when I assign and grade papers, I cannot help but teach writing along the way. That said, I don't care how hard I try or how badly I want it, in no alternative lifetime could I have been an Olympic gymnast or professional basketball player. I just don't have what it takes. I can write, though. I can make grown men cry--not because my writing is bad, but because it's good. I can help students become better writers, and help gifted students become excellent writers, but, no matter what I do, and no matter how hard they try, some students will never be better than proficient. That's O.K.

6. enmarge - September 08, 2009 at 12:53 pm

How to write a five-page article on what one could easily say in a sentence or two. Perhaps that has become the academic's forte? Rather than that flaccid statement on goddesses, I would have chosen something much more potent, as in "go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways" (Emerson) or, better yet, "let your life be a counterfriction to stop the machine" (Thoreau). What machine? Well, for starters, why not the academic machine, the one that's been producing MFA writing clones who, for the sake of career, dare not heed either Emerson or Thoreau?
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7. johnwalter - September 10, 2009 at 01:28 pm

The Iliad has its roots, including the invocation of the goddess, in oral tradition, and predates literacy, let alone the teaching of writing. While oral traditions have their own set of practcies that are learned and passed down from one singer to the next (see the work of John Miles Foley or the journal Oral Tradition for a good introduction to this), oral tradition and oral composition are not the best place for a compositionist to turn. (I say this as one who studies oral tradition and rhetoric and composition.)

Writing and writing instruction are literate acts and both have their origins in rhetoric, and rhetoric (and writing) instruction in the Western tradition date back to Greece and later Rome. Interestingly, we don't fine Plato or Aristotle or Cicero invoking the goddess as their means of invention. Nor, in fact, do the Sophists.

Why do so many in our culture believe writing is some mystical act when we accept that one can teach dramatic performance and painting and basketball and calculus and driving and cooking. All involve a mixture of natural talent, hard work, and insightful study. Muses and goddesses have nothing to do with it

8. emwhite - September 10, 2009 at 05:17 pm

Hey, yeah, just what I do as a brain surgeon. The hell with all those egghead doctors who study how to do things, I just knock the guy out, go in and slice away. I just follow my instincts and pay no attention to what those guys have studied or written for the last 50 years or so on rhetoric and composition, er, I mean brain surgery. I just somehow know what to do, most of the time. What? So I kill a few, but what the hell who needs dry old scholarship, research, or study. I know all I ever want to know about brains and stuff. I call myself a real writer.

9. pamelatodoroff - September 14, 2009 at 11:24 pm

I too teach composition and think the respondants have missed the angst and the truth of Scheck's words. "Sing, goddess..." and sing Far from the Madding Crowd of process and thesis sentences and such. Sing to the muse who inhabits the gray matter of a few--a gift from the goddess who smiles as we try to share our gift to peons who seek but cannot attain.

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