On “good” writing 2/9/17

Shaughnessy, early on, writes: “So absolute is the importance of error in the minds of many writers that ‘good writing’ to them means ‘correct writing,’ nothing more” (8). #notwrong #eyelidtwitching And correct writing for many is choosing fancy words, getting all the punctuation correct, and spelling everything right.

At parties, social gatherings, in public, when I say I’m an English professor, people make a slight movement away from me. I wouldn’t say it’s a “flinch” or a “shudder” exactly, but it’s definitely a slight backing away. Sometimes, people have actually stepped back a half step. Frequently that is followed by, “I’ll have to watch what I say around you” or “I hated English as a kid” or “English was my least favorite subject” or “I was an English major, but don’t tell anyone here.” Sometimes after I’ve said what I am, like, totally in response to a question of what I do for a living, I become the arbiter of what’s correct. “Hey, Liz, is this a real word ________________?” “Liz, this doesn’t sound right, is it wrong?” “Jim keeps using that word __________. I don’t think it means what he thinks it means. What do you say?”

If there were a choice between me and Google, I’d pick Google every single time. In fact, this happened to me recently. I was asked if a certain word one of a group was using was a real word. I said I’d never heard it before, but I looked it up on my phone, and then I said to seven adults all with mobile phones and wifi access, “Yes, it’s real. Here’s what it means_________.” OMG. #lottapressureforanEnglishmajor

If I choose to say I’m an English teacher, I often get more of the same, but also pitying looks about how hard my job must be working with the surly teens of ‘Murica, because an English teacher must be a high school teacher. “There is no controlling teenagers, am I right?” or “Heavens. I don’t know how you do it every day” or “I’d rather work on a chain gang than be a teacher.” Le sigh.

If I say I’m a writer, people’s pupils dilate and they move in closer. “Are you a novelist?” “Do you write romance novels? You look like you might with all that wild blonde hair.” [I swear. I heard this one just this last summer. I laughed out loud and said, “You got me.”] “What do you write? Anything I’ve heard of?” I say no; I mostly write haiku for my own amusement and always under a pen name; I write a lot of policy and instructional things; I write in blogs; I write articles for 14 people who care about long-dead Victorian gentlemen/writers; I write curriculum; I write poetry–but usually only for me to amuse myself–sometimes to publish; I have written and published short stories. When I’m obviously no one special, they usually walk away. They move off politely, to be sure, but they do mosey on.

If I say I’m a writing consultant, they treat me like I’m a doctor and they have a bad elbow that I could possibly fix. “Liz, I’m needing to write a letter to some folks, will you help?” Or “I wrote a 4,000 page novel when I was younger, will you look at it for zero compensation, edit, and then find me a literary agent, so I can retire from massive royalties and film rights. I’ll mention you in the acknowledgements.”

I’d say the only safe bet for what I need to tell people when they ask what I do… goes something like this:

I write.

What do you write?

I write everything.

What does that mean?

It means I write everything.

I do sort of write everything. Then I’ll leave it at that and go to the bar.

Another response I have gotten from people when they find out I have ANYTHING to do with writing is this:

I’m a terrible writer. I’ve never had good penmanship. I really can’t even do cursive. I’ve never been a good speller.

In my personal experience, folks not of the field of English, and not of the academy (mostly), see writing as correct and prettily done. And that’s not wrong; it’s just such a tiny part of the picture.

It’s the thinking, the creativity, the innovation, the looking at a thing sideways, and revision that matters the most. And a good place/text/site to learn punctuation and style is important. Sure. It’s good to know what the conventions for a rhetorical situation. Word choice comes over time, too, with experience and guidance–fancy words or otherwise.

I suspect I’ll always be employable with the writing knowledge I’ve gained–of process (how writing really works), product (genre, audience, purpose), and editing (revising work by others), or proofreading (correcting surface errors). That’s a cool bonus for having decided to study writing/composition/rhetoric.

Once I was only an editor for a summer. So when I was asked what I did, as happens, I said I was an editor. And my interlocutor asked, “What is that?” I don’t expect everyone to know all the details of writing or editing or even to know the difference between being an Language Arts teacher, English teacher, and English professor. That would be silly. Like I’d know the difference between engineers–it is to laugh.

I bring this all up because it hurts to see people feel alienated from English in deep and fearful ways. Shaughnessy writes, “This book is intended to be a guide for that kind of teacher [the trailblazers of BW], and it is certain to have the shortcomings of other frontier maps, with doubtless a few rivers in the wrong place and a few trails that end nowhere” (4). We must try to strike out for the territories, like Huck, and use the maps we can get. Here’s the start of one. And it’s a great place to begin.

Pages and pages later, in Chapter 8, Shaughnessy writes, “The expectations of learners and teachers powerfully influence what happens in school” (275). Yes. As a teacher, I expect greatness of effort, not greatness. As a student, I want that same thing–I want to give it all I can. I expect that I will do that, that I can do that. That’s part of what we teach, yes, like the habits of mind–intangibles that support the greatest of efforts. Intellectual maps, if you will, that help writers see how to reach readers, who those readers might be, what the purpose of a text might be, why a writer might choose one genre over another.

Auguste Rodin's The Thinker (1904). [I wish I had that awesome patina when I was sitting around thinking.]

Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker (1904). [I wish I had that awesome patina when I was sitting around thinking.]

What I take away from the below quote, this whole book, is ONE important idea, which I “own” like these are my words, because they speak right to my very heart where I was afraid to ever write a word and believed I couldn’t. Writers are never through, are never finished learning and trying. I have habits of mind now that keep me going, no matter what obstacles I face, because there will always be a chance to revise and make my words better. I get how I can live in a process and have it help me create a product. It’s not magic. It’s not spelling. It’s not perfect penmanship. It’s not punctuation. It’s all of that, but it’s fearlessness first, then it’s thinking, then it’s writing, then it’s revision, then it’s stopping because writing is never finished, it’s just due.

Few people, even among the most accomplished of writers, can comfortably say that they have finished learning to write, nor even that they always write as well as they can. Writing is something writers are always learning to do. (275-6)

How could I not love this? It drips with “process.” Nick Saban said it’s all about the process. He’s right. (And we’re not even close to doing football.)

These days I have a better answer to the question about what I do for a living: “I teach people how to be better writers.” And thinkers. And life-long learners. Because that’s who I am–an evolving writer, thinker, and committed learner. I hope that’s obvious to my students. #evolvingwriter #emergingthinker #lifelonglearner

[image source: wikiart.org]