Waaaaay back on September 9, 2019, two days before something fell on my head, I wrote a post called How I Learned to Write (Part 1: Was It in College?). At the end of it, I promised to write more on the topic next time. This didn’t happen—actually for various reasons; it wasn’t just due to the concussion. It was also due to the fact that I knew the post was going to be a long one, and I was, at the time, experiencing a flareup of an old arm injury that limited my computer use. But today’s our day! Where and how did I learn to write? Was it magic? Was it high school? Was it middle school? Elementary school? Early childhood? In the womb?
As I wrote in that earlier blog post, it wasn’t college. Also in that post, I wrote about the ever-raging debate about whether writing can be taught at all. My belief is that writing can be taught—that is, as much as any other talent or skill or art form can be. Sure, great writers are forged through a combination of genetic predisposition and lots and lots of reading and writing. But teachers (and other mentors) also play a part. Teaching writing, contrary to what some say, yields results—and that goes for all students, not just the students already excelling as writers.
That’s because there are tips and tricks for writing that can be taught and learned. Every tip and trick may not work for every writer or in every piece of writing; but, generally speaking, they do work. Popping a slice of bread in a toaster does, generally speaking, yield toast. Though it sometimes yields untoasted bread, or burnt bread, or a pile of smoldering ashes where once stood your house—it most of the time yields toast.
So instead of throwing the toaster out with the bath water, I say, let’s keep it. The tips and tricks of writing work, and teachers can teach them to students. (For example: Don’t mix metaphors!)
I was taught them in many ways and places. Over the years, I read grammar and style books, books about writing, and memoirs by writers. I searched the Internet and my books whenever a thorny grammatical issue arose. I read articles and blogs on writing and writers. There was one year-and-a-half span when I had a particularly attentive boss who patiently flagged every editorial mistake I made.
These accumulated tips and tricks wove their magic into whatever genetic predispositions, voracious reading habits, and diligent writing practices I already possessed. But all of the above occurred long after I’d already passed out of my college writing requirement. The tips and tricks that got me through my English majors and launched my writing/editing career? I learned them in high school.
But here’s the crazy thing. Until last year, I thought that “high school,” generally speaking, was their source. I genuinely thought that my high school English teachers went to college to get their English teaching degrees, where they—along with all of the other aspiring English teachers in the country—learned the tips and tricks they taught me.
And so, in awe of the tips and tricks and the magic they could work, I myself went to teacher training school. And I was mystified and disappointed when there was no mention of the magic tricks at the university I attended. I thought, maybe when I get my first teaching job, the other teachers will induct me into the magic writing cult. There was no magic writing cult. There were only grammar textbooks, vocabulary worksheets, boring literature readers with colorful graphics that not only obstructed the physical words but were also completely irrelevant to their meanings, and lots and lots of movies.
But still I believed. I believed that the state I grew up in was where the magic writing cult existed. I had simply chosen the wrong states in which to get my teaching degree and work as a high school English teacher. Or maybe it wasn’t the entire state; maybe the magic lived, like a fragile flower, in a mere corner of it.
Then last year, I took a trip to London and bought a bunch of tiny books, thinking that a large stack of tiny books would fit better on an airplane than a tiny stack of normal-sized books (ha!). One of these skinny books was a collection of essays by George Orwell titled Why I Write. The four essays therein ranged from mildly entertaining to rather dated. But boy did they catch my attention—especially the last one, “Politics and the English Language.”
Good grief, the tips and tricks from high school! Nearly all of them are printed right there, in one diminutive book! Now, they are not printed in a form that I would have been able to read and digest as a high schooler; my teachers presented them in simpler, bite-sized lessons. But, good grief, listen to this:
- Live in the century you’re living in.
- Make it new.
- Avoid clichés.
- Avoid pretentiousness.
- Use clear and simple words.
- Delete unnecessary words.
- Use concrete details; avoid vagueness.
- Read examples of good writing and bad writing; compare and learn.
- Read and think first. Make a list of facts, ideas, and quotations. Only then start to write.
- Don’t let other people think for you. Don’t trust the CliffsNotes, the politicians, or the media: dig into the details yourself. Then write.
- Language can be used, and is regularly used, to obstruct the truth. Language can be used, and is regularly used, to make horrific actions sound acceptable, and even desirable.
- Words matter. And you matter.
These are the condensed lessons from this tiny book, and also from my high school years. It’s all there—with the exception of “Show, don’t tell” (according to Wikipedia, this tip may have originated with Anton Chekhov) and some workaday tricks about how to write a five-paragraph essay (origin unknown; many I have not encountered anywhere since then).
And so last year, I suddenly realized, with my pre-concussed brain, that it probably wasn’t a magical entire corner of a state. It was probably just two or three colleagues, who probably all went to the same major university, in the same artsy city, probably then all got jobs at the same nearby suburban high school, probably all adored George Orwell (and other twentieth-century literary masters), and probably put their heads together at some point and thought up innovative ways to convey his ideas to us younglings. Maybe they had a common mentor at said major university, who helped them along; or maybe not.
But this was certainly not a traditionally established and ordained curriculum. It wasn’t a new curriculum when I was a student; in fact, it had been taught and refined for many, many years by the time I got there. But it seemed to be more of a tolerated curriculum, something seen as experimental, not orthodox. Even at the time, I heard vague rumors about English-department spats over what should and should not be taught, and how.
When I became an English teacher myself, I quickly learned to teach such things quietly. When I was discovered, I was severely reprimanded. Eleventh graders cannot write complete sentences, I was told by my mentor. And you definitely don’t want them thinking for themselves. Give them fill-in-the-blank worksheets.
And when I moved to a different school, in a different state, in a different region of the U.S., my mentor forbid me from including essay questions on the final exam. Writing complete sentences was not a major component of the English curriculum at that school. And when she learned that I was teaching Dickinson, Emerson, and Thoreau, she removed the books from my classroom and donated them to a charity.
(What charitable organization is somehow more desperately in need of literature books than an underfunded, rural public school?)
All throughout those years, how I longed for a mentor who would induct me into the magic writing cult! But it occurred to me, upon finishing the Orwell essays last year, that I have had that mentor all along. They are the literary greats whose books I have been reading all my life. And she is the confidence or fire or whatever it is within me that strives to be like them, to study and think and discover and trust and fail and try again and communicate and feel and be.
And I realized that, at their core, thinking and writing are deeply unorthodox and intensely radical acts. If you teach a teenager to think, what chaos will be unleashed? And if you teach whole classrooms to do so, and then give them the tools to hone all those chaotic, raw, uncultivated thoughts and communicate them in precise, logical ways? Now there’s a Pandora’s Box as the world has seldom seen!
I am so proud to finally, after so many years of feeling like a lost outsider, know that I am, indeed, a longstanding member of the magic writing cult. And if you read masterful books and think and refine your thoughts and communicate those thoughts with others? Then you are, too. And more—this is the only way to ensure that morally corrupt, but incredibly powerful, forces do not stomp upon the rights of you and your countryfolk, through lies and fearmongering. This is the big lesson of George Orwell’s little essays. And of my former teachers.
Does any of this sound relevant to you, today in 2020? And did I actually write, above, that Orwell’s essays were “rather dated”?!