Swimming In A Parka

I read an article in the New York Times recently about a college English professor who was very disappointed in the quality of his students’ term papers. They were inarticulate, uninspired, and often riddled with grammatical mistakes. Oh, what has become of our cyber-addicted youth, the professor moaned?  What has become of our education system? The end of America must be close at hand. But then this professor did a little snooping. It turns out these very same students often kept blogs. Of course, no one was telling the students to write the blogs; no one was paying them to write these blogs; nor was anyone grading them on these blogs. The students were simply writing them because they wanted to write them.

What he found surprised him. The blogs were uniformly better than all the term papers. The blogs were funnier, smarter, snappier, and, for those who care about such things, better punctuated. Interesting, thought the college professor. When I tell them all to write a paper about Emma Bovary as she relates to post-fifties feminism, I get 800 words of drivel. When they write about the latest episode of the Real Housewives of New Jersey, they produce insight and humor.

Teaching someone to write by telling them what they must write about is like trying to teach someone to swim in a down parka. Anyone who crashed into the ocean wearing a parka would immediately shed the coat if they didn’t want to drown. Likewise, when we pick up a pen the first question we ask ourselves is, “What do I want to write about?” It is the most natural thing to do; it is the direction of the current that is you.

Sometimes I look upon this blog’s purpose as taking a small role in undoing all the well-intentioned damage done by years of teaching good little boys and girls how to write Proper Term Papers. All writing should begin and end with the question, “What do I most want to write?” just as all living should begin with the question, “What do I want to do?” Shed your parka, if you’ve still got one—otherwise, you might very well drown trying to keep up with yourself.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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