Feeling Fake in the Classroom

September 08, 2009

"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.