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.