The Best Teacher

I started reading The Phantom Tollbooth with my son last night. After closing the book he asked, “What’s it about?” I said, “Well, you just read it. What do you think?” To which he answered, “But what’s the problem in it?” And I wondered, will he be a book editor some day? Tollbooth is the story of a boy, Milo, who isn’t interested in anything and always wants to be somewhere he isn’t. Milo travels through the magic tollbooth on an allegorical journey through The Doldrums, and Dictionopolis, and the Mountains of Ignorance, and then returns to the world interested in life again.

The problem is not quite as clear as the stories Sawyer, my son, is used to reading. That is, Milo does not see himself as having a problem, and he is not taking this journey with the idea that he will solve anything. Usually heroes in stories have clear objectives and obvious adversaries, thus Sawyer couldn’t yet figure out what the story was “about.”

As the writer father, I would like to take some credit for Sawyer’s precocious understanding of narrative structure, but I’m afraid he came to this entirely on his own. I remember when I was a freshman in college and was annoyed that I was required to take a basic composition class (had my SAT scores been 10 points higher I could have skipped it). I brought something I had written to the head of the English Department, she read it, and asked, “Where did you learn to write?”

I was confused by the question, and without meaning to be snotty, I answered, “My typewriter.”

I’m all for writing classes and, as is obvious from the articles in this magazine, writing advice, but let us be clear: You do not need to be formally taught anything. Sometimes classes and books and magazines can hasten the process or nudge you in the right direction, but do not believe that all valuable information comes to you from the top down, so to speak. Human beings are by their very nature curious, flexible, and good learners. So if you are human, trust that it is within you to learn what you must to do the things you most want to do. In fact, learning to trust your own gifted instincts will take you farther than any teacher could ever guide you. The teacher, after all, does not know where you want to go. Only you know that, so only you can find your way there.

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