Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Monday, October 27, 2008

[blockhead] Writing about writing is not a sin

This post has some origins in the lack of recent posts on this blog, but we're not going down that ol' solipsistic road again. No, the absence of posts is merely a symptom of something larger that has come to my attention recently, and that is a lack of writing of any sort.

That this blog is involved at all is only the result of the recent change of format. The Original HKC was anecdotal most of the time, and frequently held collage posts comprised of random, unrelated thoughts. That stuff hardly counts as writing at all. With Walakanet, I have been trying to move away from posts for post's sake and more toward the essai, works that, while still fairly short, are still composed and not merely jotted. We're not aiming at Montaigne here, but the bar has been raised high enough that posts to this blog nowadays could be considered to be legitimate writing.

And it is personal writing of this nature that is the issue here. To be sure, there is no lack of writing in my life, in a technical sense. I am an English teacher; I write syllabi and lesson plans and assignment rubrics and emails all the live-long day, and I will argue strenuously with anyone who does not consider those products "real" writing. At the same time, there is a dearth of that writing that is not task- or audience-driven - or to put an even finer point on it, that writing that is not obligatory but voluntary. There are no short stories, no creative non-fiction, no poems flying out of my word processor. And I don't think that I am alone among my peers in feeling this lacuna.

A colleague from Cascadia volunteers at 826 Seattle, the nonprofit writing center in Greenwood, and attends a regular Thursday gathering of English teachers there. He reported that at a recent get-together, when asked if they considered themselves writers or teachers, six of the eight in attendance thought of themselves only as teachers and not as writers.

Work pal NatDog put a personal face on this issue during one of our recent drives into work together. She was telling me about a friend of hers who'd had an article published in a magazine and asked why she, who was an English teacher and theoretically knew more about writing than her friend, was not writing articles and getting them published. It wasn't a rhetorical question, but I had no useful response for her, and the remaining twenty minutes on northbound Lake City way provided no answers either.

I do have some clues, though. The easy answer is, of course, time. For example, I have always wanted to participate in NaNoWriMo, the write-a-novel-in-a-month project that rolls around every November. Well, I considered it again this year, and then realized that over the first weekend of the month, when I would need to complete 14 pages to be starting out on pace, I will have (conservatively) twelve hours of responding papers to get through as well. I just can't see how I could do both projects. Teaching composition has its benefits in the classroom, but seems to require the most out-of-class time.

But although time is the easy answer, I am not sure it is the compelling one; there are plenty of time-stressed people who still manage to squeeze writing into their days. It has to be something else. I have considered whether being in the "editor" mode (for a gross oversimplification) so much of the time dulls the creative edge. I have wondered whether reading so much bad - or perhaps more kindly underdeveloped - writing just puts me off engaging with writing altogether for periods of time. There might be some merit in these inquiries.

I have recently, however, been taken by a different theory, one related to these avenues but stemming also from this piece by Ira Glass (which I posted on the Original HKC some months back). Glass talked about how creators often have really good taste in their chosen area - video, painting, prose, whatever - which is why they are drawn to that field or idiom. But it is this same good taste which also tells them just how bad their own creative efforts in that arena are compared to what they know is possible; this can stifle the creative urge completely, as the artist is convinced (often rightly) that all they are creating is crap.

I wonder whether the English teacher is subject to an acute version of this syndrome. It probably goes without saying that an English teacher is likely a lover of words and a naturally verbal person, usually well-read with significant writing experience. Fine: we know good writing. But we also know bad writing, and not-as-good-as-it-could-be writing, and missed-it-by-that-much writing; we see it all the time, and we are trained and habituated to respond to it with direction, correction, advice, and assistance. This develops a critical perspective in both the good and bad senses of the word: sometimes I think an English teacher can't read anything without penciling it up.

And that obsession applies to our own stuff as well, creating a vicious cycle. Whatever I write, I'm just going to tear apart, because I know it's going to be awful. My taste is developed enough to know what good writing looks like and my attitude is such that I can't leave unfinished writing alone. I can't turn my internal censor off long enough to produce a sufficient amount of text to gain any traction, so I don't produce anything. Meanwhile, people without this overdeveloped sensitivity just go on writing and getting published, the lucky stiffs.

At least, that's my theory for this cobbler's-kids-go-shoeless phenomenon, of which I am not the only example. It'll do for now, and at least it gives me a strategy for response: working on turning off the censor. I need to believe that it's not just "those who can, do; those who cannot, teach," because if that were the case, I might have to give up teaching.


John said...

I've had this idea for a novel kicking around in my head for almost 15 years now. One of these Novembers, it really would be cool to push myself to finish it... even if it isn't some perfect masterpiece.

RAB said...

I should have the title of this post written on my head backwards, so that I'll be able to read it in the mirror.

(One of the things that keeps me from blogging more often is that I'm endlessly thinking about writing process stuff that I assume a) other people know more about than I do, or b) those that don't would be bored to tears reading about it...)

Walaka said...

John: Since the stated goal is of the project is NOT to produce good writing, it might be an excellent breakthrough exercise. Maybe next year I can arrange to clear the decks a bit and take it on. We'll talk over the summer.

RAB: Thanks. I guess that means I either know my audience better than you think you do yours (and I'd love to read your take on the writing process) or that I am completely delusional...

Juliet said...

Great post. I start lots of things, and don't finish. I think because I then can (passively) prevent critique. However, I love helping others get past road blocks. I know we're s'posed to prioritize our own aspirations, but I kinda like my job of correcting drawings.