Back To School

This column is devoted more or less to the writer’s life, but any regular reader will notice certain reoccurring themes that have little direct relevance to the craft or business of writing. One of those is education. Though my sister has been a teacher in the public schools all her adult life, and my father-in-law founded an experimental high school in the early 70’s, I have no real personal investment in education, aside from hoping my two sons will get something resembling one by the time they have graduated high school.

The other day, I was reflecting on all I have learned since ending my formal education. I learned how to raise sons, one with what we call “special needs” and one without; I learned about marriage and politics (which are not necessarily related); I learned how to act and how to write sketch comedy; I learned how to tell the difference between a pinot noir and syrah by the wine’s color and fragrance; I learned how to write music; I learned how interview people and how to edit videos. Oh, and I also learned how to write fiction, poetry, and essays.

Not once in all this learning did it ever cross my mind that I should find a classroom where I would sit in a chair while an instructor guided me and a group of other students through the basics of whatever it was I was trying to learn. Not that this is such a horrible way to learn something, but apparently it is not the way I learn something. Apparently, I like to just do the thing, make my mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and then do the thing some more.

In short, I had to leave school in order to learn in a way that was natural to me. Which brings me back to writing: Learning is the very natural act of pursuing what is of interest to us. Is this not writing? And what brings more joy to a writer than discovery, that moment where you learn where it is you actually wanted to go when you began your story, poem, play, or memoir? All writers have gone back to school, but it is in a classroom of one. Here we are the student again, the teacher is the story, and fortunately no diplomas are ever given.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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Bright Futures

When I was about twenty, a girlfriend asked me if I was a pessimist or an optimist. Being that I was sensitive and a little melodramatic, I had recently decided that wisdom’s highest expression was a kind of informed despair. Despite this, I thought for a moment and replied, “I’m an optimist.”

If I were a pessimist, I don’t think I’d ever get anything done. I have a friend who worked very hard a number of years ago to transform education. He succeeded on a very small scale, but obviously things in the classroom still remain essentially as they were 150 years ago. Whenever he talks about education now, his ideas are always forward-looking and refreshing, but it is unlikely he will ever be a part of changing education because he has become a pessimist. People, he has come to believe, are rotten and stupid and narrow and hopeless – not all of them, but somewhere in the last twenty years the scales were tipped for the worse.

I make a point not to talk to him about education now. I think of him whenever I listen to people like James Bach or Sir Ken Robinson discuss how we learn. Much of what these men are saying now my friend has been saying since the 60’s, but these two men, and many other men and women like them, are optimistic. Which is to say they remain committed to the idea that humanity can—and indeed must—evolve. Change may be slow, but it is inevitable, and it is never corrosive, at least not in the long run.

I’ve heard it said that pessimism is a sign of intelligence. This may be so, but it is only a sign of intelligence unmoored from wisdom. Wisdom is always an expression of life’s unshakable balance. Do not argue for the balance; as with the balance you find on a tightrope, you can only feel it—there is no evidence for this balance beyond you standing tall. Pessimism and despair are nothing more than the mind’s cry for help. Life, whether we complain about it or not, moves ever forward. The optimist accepts this and assumes the future is some place he’d like to be, since that is where he is headed; the pessimist has decided that any future his mind cannot predict is not a future he wants any part of.

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Your Searchlight

Once I was sitting with my son’s elementary school teacher and the subject of writing came up. As you can probably guess, I had a few things to say. Number one was this: If you want to teach a kid to write better, forget about grammar and topic sentences, first make sure they are writing something of genuine interest to them. The teacher nodded politely with an expression that said she was filing my suggestion away under, “And how the hell would I do that?”

I’m not sure, but teaching someone to write something they aren’t interested in is like teaching someone to play Ping-Pong with a pencil. Odds are the student will become frustrated from the joyless futility of it. Writing and language were not invented so we could share things we don’t care about.  If you tell thirty people, “Write about airplanes,” the ones that are interested in airplanes will enjoy it, while the rest will likely see it as an exercise in reading the teacher’s mind.

I can imagine there is a line of reasoning that says a good writer should be able to harness his or her skill and craft something polished on any subject from peas to poetry. If a student can write about something they aren’t interested in, think how much better they would be when they are interested. In this way, the assigned topic becomes like training a sprinter by having him run uphill.

But in training someone to write about what doesn’t interest them, you are training that someone to ignore their single greatest strength. Learn to ignore what is of interest, we are saying, and learn instead to pass tests. Your interest is a kind of distraction; a grownup knows how to focus on the task at hand.

I am told my youngest son needs to learn to focus on the task at hand. I am told he is too distracted. Yet I have watched him sit for two hours without looking up while he assembles elaborate models. When the beam of our attention lights an object of our truest desire, that object shines so bright it is hard to see much else. It is in those moments of discovery that you learn why you were given a beam of light in the first place. You are not some candle destined only to dimly illuminate whatever room someone puts you in; you are a searchlight, scanning the horizon for those things that shine back the brightest.

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What Follows You

Jasper Fforde was born into a family of academics and had to overcome a belief that he couldn’t be a writer without any formal higher education. Seven books later he has concluded that the minimum requirement for writing is “being human.”

I couldn’t agree more. Writing schools (in the form of MFA programs) abound, and I imagine they serve a useful purpose. If nothing else, they get young and youngish would-be writers to write a lot under the tutelage of an experienced writer. Contacts can be made as well. Certain literary agents scour the ranks of Iowa Writers Workshop graduates for potential clients, and in her interview Zoë Ferarris described a soiree thrown by her MFA program where agents mingled with the new blood.

So all to the good. But in the end, all the writing classes in the world will never take the place of hours spent in the chair. Writing is not about a relationship between you and a writer teacher, or you and a critique group, or even you and your readership—it is a relationship between you and you. After you’ve written what you wanted to write is when the teachers and readers come in, and that is a particular relationship and experience unto itself.

The writing, however, is about you talking to you. Or, more accurately, you listening to you. Those hours in the chair are where you train your ear to hone in on your most authentic stream of thought and feeling. That stream is unique to you, and so it is ultimately impossible for anyone else to tell you where it is or what it sounds like.

Alone we are at our desks. Some of us fear this solitude, some of us are afraid to leave it. Yet there is nothing to fear, in leaving the solitude or in turning toward it. That silence and solitude is with you at all times, and if you train your ear well enough, you will hear it wherever you are—ending arguments, choosing the perfect gift, and putting you to sleep at night.

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Teach Them Well

I have featured a number of authors lately – Sir Ken Robinson, Daniel Pink, James Bach – and might be interviewing another (an eleven year-old writing/teaching prodigy, but we shall see) who deal in one way or another with education. Until I had children, my own thoughts about education could be boiled down to: get through it and then get on with real life because you’re going to have to teach yourself everything you really want to learn anyway.

I continue to feel that way, more or less, but the fact remains school dominates our early life, returns again once we have children, and maybe a third time with grandchildren. In my own life, my sister is a devoted public school teacher, and my father-in-law started two experimental schools in the 70s (School One and A.L.P., for you Rhode Islanders).

But why is Author interested in education? Because in the end every writer, just as every person, is a teacher and a student. What we call education or a school system is us wrangling—officially—over what it means to be human. At some point, students—and particularly child students—will ask, “Why do I have to do this?” This is an entirely legitimate question, and our answers, from, “Because I said so,” to, “Because it’s what we do,” to, “I don’t know,” reveal to us our current view of life, sometimes buried beneath useless habitual thinking.

I sometimes think of my characters as students in this way. They ask me, “Why do I have to go talk to the king?” Because I said so isn’t going to work. Those characters, just like our children, want to be themselves, and so I have to find the real reason my hero would go to the king. This search for the character’s self is the joy and challenge of writing.

The same is true of teaching. All we are ever teaching is how to be ourselves. Strange to think because every route toward the self is different, but the route is never the point. That the route exists is the point. I’ve known good teachers and I’ve known bad teachers and all the good teachers share one thing in common: a knowledge that life is interesting and meaningful. Without that understanding, you can never teach anything, you can only share your misery and hope your students reject you emphatically enough to wake you from your nightmare.

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