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A detail of Little boy writing a letter, a painting by Norman Rockwell

So You Want to Be a Writer?

A review of Why They Can’t Write by John Warner

Phil Christman

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  • Michael Van Dyke

    I stumbled upon this article as I was avoiding prep work for the section of freshman writing I have to teach this afternoon. The last section on how the specter of capitalism invades our classrooms and broader academic environments was refreshingly honest. It steeled my soul to continue resisting the dehumanizing tendencies of our dominant practices. Thank you.

That I would eventually teach college writing was a conclusion foregone, I suppose, as soon as I decided that I was “going to be a writer.” (Not “I was going to write” – that commitment to the process of actual making comes later.) This is true in the obvious sense that our culture doesn’t offer many careers that leave a (lucky; healthy; non-primary caregiver) person the time or energy to write three or four hours a day. But it’s true also in the far deeper sense that, once I had committed to Being A Writer, I immediately encountered a huge body of contradictory lore, and the ongoing mental exertion of harmonizing all that lore – how-to books; new-age inner-creative-child books; classic works on aesthetics and poetics; exhortatory books like John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist and life-coaching books like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird; what writers said in interviews; what my teachers told me; what I absorbed from pop culture; last and least of all, my fanny-pack’s worth of firsthand experience – ensured that I would need to do something with all of it.

I am not sure why I settled on the idea. I had not read, at fifteen or sixteen, all that much serious literature – really just The Catcher in the Rye, a book I was too stupid to realize was indicting me by evoking the kind of identifying, idolizing love from me that it did. Most of what I read as a kid was fundamentalist propaganda; or comics; or Nancy Drew novels (I wanted to be her boyfriend); or, if I felt ambitious, sci-fi. In adolescence I added to these books about running and music magazines. I read slowly and badly, with a puny attention span and a kind of neurotic repetition-compulsion – over and over, in middle school, the same June 1989 issue of Batman; over and over, in high school, the same November 1995 Spin profile of Tori Amos. (I also wanted to be her boyfriend, after she had re-accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior.) Most of the time, in high school, I did not read at all. I listened to music, and was depressed.

Having decided that I would be a writer, I tried to read more novels. My initial verdict was that they wasted too much time describing scenes and people. This was true of all novelists except for Tom Robbins and Kurt Vonnegut, who were fun because of the way they abandoned their stories every few pages to lecture and attitudinize like cool, disaffected teachers. I could not yet imagine a better way to spend a reader’s time. At the tail end of high school I started to read Dostoyevsky, because my dad liked him and because he seemed gloomy and important, though at the time I took every character’s self-description as the naked truth. This is a fatal mistake to make with Dostoyevsky’s people, as with actual people. It took me an embarrassingly long time to get over doing both.

I didn’t want to write. I wanted to be a certain fascinating kind of person.

With the help of a Cliff’s Notes, I began to realize that you couldn’t take Dostoyevsky’s people at face value. I, also, had hidden some truth from myself about myself. That truth was that I didn’t want to write. I wanted to be a certain fascinating kind of person. I did not want to have to become that person by spending three or four hours a day, or even one or two, writing the kind of embarrassing garbage of which I was then capable – essays that for some reason read like sermons; poems that read like the sorts of song lyrics that you wish you hadn’t bothered to look up; short stories that read like half-hour TV episodes. (We imitate the genres we know.)

detail of Little boy writing a letter by Norman Rockwell

Detail of Little boy writing a letter by Norman Rockwell

I spent my young adulthood examining the way real writers – some of whom I had slowly begun to appreciate – work. A classically earnest English major, I learned about Hawthorne’s careful notebooks – I tried to do the same thing, and immediately lost the notebook – and about Hemingway’s habit of getting up at 5 a.m. and working till it was light. (I set the alarm for 4:59, wrote three sentences about the misery of waking early, three more about the sadness of not being anyone’s boyfriend, and then fell asleep again.) I bought a copy of The Artist’s Way from the New Age bookstore in Grand Rapids, a place that my friends and I would occasionally drive over from Calvin to visit, with a little frisson of rebelliousness. I did the first two or three days of the book’s several-month-long regime about fifteen times; I don’t think I ever reached week two. I pondered Henry James’s dictum, “Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost,” on the bus to my first white-collar summer job, junior year, and, in my fixation, lost my pen. Through the end of college, and into my twenties, I tried to write what I knew; write hard and clear about what hurt; write a vivid and continuous dream; to recollect my emotions in tranquility; to lay out a line of words; to write a shitty first draft that I could transform into a good second draft and a terrific third draft.

But mostly I floundered. And then one morning in my late twenties I found myself a grad student, trying to explain thesis statements to a roomful of first-years, and I realized that I was speaking, for the first time in my life, with the authority of unfeigned experience. Not only did I sound to them like I knew what I was talking about, but – far rarer thing – I sounded that way to myself. From so many years comparing all these maps to my scraggly little territory, I had come to know something about both.

Forgive this long autobiographical excursus in a book review. I have left it where it is partly because youthful idiocy is funny to read about, and partly because it illustrates some important aspects of how a person learns to write less badly – some of the same things that John Warner explains in his excellent and cathartic book, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. I had an internal motivation, however flimsy; but, as Warner points out, classroom writing instruction often fails even to try to put students in a situation where they might locate motives to write within themselves. (He illustrates this point by a vivid story involving peanut butter sandwiches.) I read widely, if at first stupidly, in the genres in which I wanted to work; but, Warner reminds us, we assign our students to write in genres that really only exist within the classroom. I always wrote for an imaginary audience; but, Warner shows, everything about the classroom situation conspires to make students feel as though they speak into a void. In essence, Warner’s book is both a primer on writing instruction and a description of the historical and structural factors that keep writing teachers from doing what research and common sense tell us to do. The overall rhythm of the book alternates “Here’s what we know we ought to do” with “And here’s why we’re not doing it.”

Warner defines “the writer’s practice” as a set of “attitudes, skills, habits of mind, and knowledge” that writers embody, carry with them, or engage in. He describes the most important writerly attitude this way: “Writers continually build expertise without ever becoming expert. It is like being inside an endlessly right-scrolling game of Super Mario World – except you never get to defeat the big boss.” I don’t think it’s accidental that Warner lists this attitude before he comes around to describing (say) a writer’s skills or knowledge: without at least an inkling that this is true, you never really develop either of the latter. And my experience did teach me this – the repeated beginning-again, the confrontation with my own stupidity. The attitude, which one accepts first callowly, like a parent’s maxim, becomes habitual; learning to draft and research and revise (Warner’s “skills”) inscribes it more deeply on the soul. Persistence in living with it helps develop all the “habits of mind” Warner lists – curiosity, flexibility, care for one’s audience.

There can be no “mastery” under these circumstances.

If Warner – himself a novelist, editor, and former teacher, whose palpable respect for his students gives this book its moral force – had simply inveighed against bad writing instruction, he’d be wasting all of our time. Every few months sees another “Why School Is So Bad Now (Hint: Blame Unions)” polemic from some journalist; every few years another moral panic fomented by think tanks. Warner opens his book with a witty, point-by-point response to the most common critiques. Writing, he reminds us, is hard, and has always been so. It is recursive: at every level of achievement, the same difficulties reassert themselves. It is an activity in which renegotiating the rules as you play is part of the game itself. We not only expect wildly different things from different writers, depending on the situation, audience, genre, and era, but we read in the hope that a writer will flout our expectations in a clever way, or give us new expectations we’d never thought to have. There can be no “mastery” under these circumstances. Dissatisfaction with formal writing instruction is thus not only as old as writing instruction itself; it is baked into the project. When people complain about how “young people today” can’t write, they are comparing an idealized version of themselves to a caricatured vision of someone else. And they are working from a set of unstated expectations that they themselves could not meet – an idiosyncratic mix of formal correctness, originality, and adherence to weird personal or generational strictures that no longer make sense in a particular situation. (Someone somewhere is really mad, for no reason, that I began the previous sentence with “and.”)

Warner does not blame students, or their iPhones, for their inability to write good papers.

Warner does not blame the current generation of students, or their iPhones, for their inability to write good papers. Nor, refreshingly, does he blame teachers or our unions. He blames the inherent difficulty of the subject, and the way K-12 schools – often under pressure from federal and state legislatures – try to avoid that difficulty by enshrining certain metrics. “Current common approaches for teaching writing,” he writes, “are simultaneously too punishing and not nearly challenging enough.”

detail of Little boy writing a letter by Norman Rockwell

Notice the distinction Warner makes here: too punishing, insufficiently challenging. This seems like a paradox, but think about a student’s experiences. You spend four years mastering the strange conventions of “the high-school paper,” which are often simply a set of fossilized rules half-remembered, and made mandatory, by members of a curriculum committee who have worked all weekend and badly need sandwiches. Your teachers know these requirements are silly, and yet they have no collective power to push back against the state or federal requirements they face. You then arrive in a college classroom where some petty tyrant has decided that everyone, in every section, must turn in, say, an outline of a certain page count, which is graded and perhaps revised, and so must be written as though for a reader besides the writer – which is to say, it’s not an outline a writer would or could possibly use. Upon returning each draft, the professor subjects you to lengthy, perhaps mutually contradictory criticisms (e.g., to eliminate digressions from the main argument without changing the main argument and without removing the professor’s favorite section of the essay, which is a digression).

Meanwhile the same professor’s book is months or years overdue. It exists in notes and fragments. There is no outline; the professor never uses them, and has never seriously thought about the source of this contradiction between precept and example. Or she knows and feels the contradiction, and regrets it, but she’s just had her per-class rate cut by a third by the state legislature, and she really isn’t in a position to challenge the boss when the boss says, “Require an outline.”

Truly thrilling thinking is ungainly. Think of the headlong speed and desperation of Joanna Russ’s writing, of Marx’s many unfinished projects, the way DuBois and Wittgenstein repudiate their earlier selves, the knottiness and particularity of de Beauvoir’s arguments. Think of the catch-all, overstuffed quality of scholarly masterworks from Augustine’s City of God to Stephen Jay Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Think of the way Arendt’s “banality of evil” achieves its clarity and memorability only by risking vast offensiveness. Think of the way Hurston’s lifework, or Coleridge’s, moves us all the more in its silence, even its incompleteness. Thought makes messes; it invites critique and passionate rejection, while the performance of excellence that predominates at prestigious institutions aims precisely at making critique impossible. It makes you timid – like someone who would rather get no reviews than a mixture of good and bad ones. When I worked at a predominantly working-class college, a young woman once engaged me in a staring contest when I asked her to put her phone down; by the end of the semester, she was turning in papers that clearly represented hours of struggle on her end. I know A students at prestigious schools who have spent their lives hiding from the amount of risk and change that I saw her undergo in those three months.

If the book has a deficiency, it is that Warner does not clearly enough name the problem at the root of all of this. So much that makes American writing instruction stupid and counterproductive is a response to the pressures of capitalism. It’s not only that our economic system does not protect those things to which we can’t easily attach a bottom-line value. It’s that our economic system does not acknowledge human interiority except as this manifests in measurable forms (consumer choice, “revealed preference,” and the like).

Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism – which is, among other things, a great book about teaching – traces the process by which the supposed capitalist intolerance for inefficiency, waste, and bureaucracy can lead to the massive proliferation of these things in classrooms: endless forms and documentation, reviewed by an ever-increasing number of subdeans and deanlets, to prove that we’re maximizing every iota of student-learning potential. The imperative to signal that one is doing one’s job takes precedence over learning, and students copy our example, memorizing a suite of behaviors that look like “being a good student.” The doubts and hesitations of intellectual life disrupt the performance, so out they go. This system perpetuates itself, writes Fisher, via the widespread belief that there is no alternative.

detail of the painting Little boy writing a letter Norman Rockwell

When schools under capitalism seek to impress certain qualities upon students’ minds and hearts, the way that they gauge their success is by asking teachers and students to do a kind of continuous, strenuous acting-out of those qualities. But the acting-out of rigorous thinking actually gets in the way of actual rigorous thinking.

In a way, this makes college far too easy. The elite university thinks of itself as a hard place, but, for example, at my Research One school, I am told not to assign my first-years an amount of reading that exceeds twenty-five pages a week. This is probably a good number, given how many of my students work full-time outside of the classroom, but it is not “rigorous.” At the same time, the pervasive monitoring and real-time data about student performance that I am encouraged to provide my students with via electronic means creates a degree of anxiety in them that might make a much tougher reading load seem easy in comparison.

The appearance of rigor demands only that we never take off the yoke.

Actual learning says to us, simultaneously, “Take up your cross” and “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” It does not seem accidental to me that C. S. Lewis, when he tried to show how Christ could have said, and meant, both these statements, used the example of children learning geometry. He contrasts the child who “is prepared to take trouble … to understand” a proposition in Euclid to the child who simply rote-memorizes them: “[S]ix months later, when they are preparing for an exam, that lazy boy is doing hours and hours of miserable drudgery over things the other boy understands, and positively enjoys, in a few minutes.” Learning hurts and then brings joy; it tires and then refreshes. The appearance of rigor demands only that we never take off the yoke – that we always look and feel exhausted, that we brag about our imbalanced lives, that we obsess over grades, that we lobby our professors, that we adopt the restless but objectless hustle of the neoliberal subject. All of this will certainly exhaust a student far more than actually learning stuff would do. But it gives us nothing in return.

Why They Can't Write cover by John Warner

Get the book: Why They Can’t Write by John Warner

Contributed By portrait of Phil Christman Phil Christman

Phil Christman teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan and is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing. His work has appeared in The Christian Century, Paste, Books & Culture, the Hedgehog Review, and other publications. His book Midwest Futures is forthcoming.

Contributed By portrait of Phil Christman Phil Christman

Phil Christman teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan and is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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