I miss reading. I really do. In a big, big way. And it has, especially over the past couple of days, been making me very, very sad. It started after I read Joshua Bodwell’s article in the most recent issue of Poets & Writers, “You Are What You Read.” “Not long ago,” he begins
I had an unsettling epiphany that probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise but nevertheless left me disheartened for the better part of an afternoon.
I won’t get to all the books I want to read in my lifetime.
For the average reader, this is one of life’s relatively benign epiphanies; as a writer it’s a serious limitation. After all, writers are readers first. Most of us were consuming books long before we ever picked up a pen or pencil, and confronting the fact that there is a limit to the number of them we will read feels a bit like realizing there’s a finite amount of oxygen in the room.
I don’t really buy the oxygen metaphor, but I endorse wholly the idea Bodwell is trying to get at. Indeed, a jolt of regret ran through me more strongly than I have felt in a long time when I read the words “writers are readers first,” because I can’t remember the last time that statement would have been saying something true about me. Sure, I read. I read for school, both material that I am teaching and that my students write; I read the newspaper and articles in magazines; I read blog posts and occasionally the discussion threads they spawn; I read emails and memos and occasionally scholarly articles and other similar material that feeds my academic work; but it has been years since I have been able to create at the center of my life a space for the kind of reading that nourishes me as a writer, reading that puts me back in touch with myself just for the sake of that experience, that connects me to language in ways that are challenging and revitalizing, that affirms my right to claim a place in this world simply because I am, that shapes who I am and shows me possibilities of being I would not otherwise have imagined.
It’s easy to lay the blame for this state of affairs at the feet of my adult responsibilities–having a job, needing to work extra hours because we need money, being a partner to the woman I married nearly twenty years ago and a parent to a thirteen year old boy–and, to some degree, putting the blame there is not inaccurate. Those responsibilities do take up time I could otherwise spend reading. It is also true, however, that I simply have not prioritized reading the way I used to, not so much in terms of how much time I can give to it, but in the sense that I’ve made choices about how to use my time that have pushed the kind of reading I am talking about here to the margins of my life. I did not start this post thinking about New Year’s Resolutions–since I don’t really believe in them anyway–but it is appropriate that I should be starting it on New Year’s Day, the day after I finished the first book in a very long time that I read just because I wanted to read it–though I didn’t start reading for that reason (about which more below)–Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One.
Fish divides his book into the two sections named in the title, treating the first, roughly, as a discussion of form and the second, more or less, as a discussion of content. Of course, since the two are not really separable, his analysis of one often bleeds over into an analysis of the other. Nonetheless, the distinction is useful, since it allows Fish to ground a lot of what he has to say in the notion that a sentence is a material thing, like paint, an object with a structure and characteristics independent of the particular content the sentence has been fashioned to convey. Too many people who want to write–at least this is true of too many of the students I meet who say they “lo-ove” to write (and they almost always turn “love” into a two syllable word)–just don’t get this. Here is the first paragraph of Fish’s book:
In her book The Writing Life (1989), Annie Dillard tells the story of a fellow writer who was asked by a student, “Do you think I could be a writer?” “‘Well,’ the writer said, ‘do you like sentences?'” The student is surprised by the question, but Dillard knows exactly what was meant. He was being told, she explains, that “if he liked sentences he could begin,” and she remembers a similar conversation with a painter friend. “I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, ‘I like the smell of paint.'” The point, made implicitly (Dillard does not belabor it), is that you don’t begin with a grand conception, either of the great American novel or a masterpiece that will have in the Louvre. You begin with a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium, paint in one case, sentences in the other. (1)
There are few pleasures that I enjoy more than getting my hands dirty in the tangled mess that the sentences of my first drafts usually are; and if we’re talking about poems, in which case you need to add to that mess the lines over which the sentences break, and perhaps a meter and/or a rhyme scheme, then the pleasure is even greater. Right now, there are two piece I am working on, an essay and a poem, each one needing revision. I have set them aside until I finish prepping my technical writing class for next semester–I am writing this post to take a break from that preparation–and I can’t wait to be able to pick each one up again and give to revising it the solid chunk of time that it will need (and deserve).
My students, or at least the overwhelming majority of them, feel no such pleasure in revision. Indeed, most of them barely know what revision is, thinking instead that the only changes that ever need to be made to a piece of writing they’ve produced are grammatical or proofreading corrections. These students, I think, can usually be divided into two large groups: those who find writing to be a real chore, but who are nonetheless able and willing to write for class with some degree of competence, and those for whom writing can be a truly painful experience, who are convinced it is a skill they will never acquire–that they are congenitally bad at it anyway–whose work is most commonly labeled remedial and who therefore hate writing.
There are reasons that this second group feels the way it does, and I could devote an awful lot of space to meditating on why, but those reasons don’t concern me now. Nor am I really interested in why the first group feels the way it does. No one is obligated to like writing. What I am interested in is a stance towards language that, in my experience, these two groups seem to share. More interestingly, it is a stance I remember being articulated in an essay on poetry that I read a long time ago but that I can’t lay my hands on right now. (I want to say the writer was Wendell Berry and that the essay was called something like “A Poet’s Education” or “The Education of a Poet,” but I can’t remember for sure.) In any event, according to my memory, the essayist was asking why people so resisted the idea that writers in general, and poets in particular, should have, or require, as formal an education in their art as painters, say, require in theirs. I read the essay at least 10 or 15 years ago, and it is likely older than that, so I think the piece was part of a conversation about why MFA programs were necessary. The reason the writer felt the essay was necessary, if I remember the argument correctly, is that while everyone seems to understand paint or sound as material about the properties of which people might be ignorant, and about which, therefore, aspiring artists or composers need to learn, since just about everyone who wants to be a writer is already a native speaker of–has already, on some measurable level, mastered–the language in which they want to write, it is much harder to see how people might be ignorant of language in the same way.
This is a point that I think almost every freshman composition text I have ever tried to use has missed, with the exception of They Say, I Say, by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein: the idea that college freshman need to learn how to write not at the level of large rhetorical forms like narration, description, comparison-contrast and the like, but at the level of language, of how language works to structure and create meaning. Graff and Birkenstein do this by foregrounding the use of linguistic templates that they say every competent writer uses. So, for example–and those three words right there are an example of such a template: so, for example–their book contains examples and exercises that resemble a kind of academic Mad-Lib (remember those?). Here are two moderately sophisticated examples of templates:
In recent discussions of __________, a controversial issue has been whether ____________. On the one hand, some argue that ____________. From this perspective, ____________. On the other hand, however, others argue that ____________. In the words of one of this view’s main proponents, “___________.” According to this view, __________. In sum, then, the issue is whether _________ or ___________. My own view is that ____________. Though I concede that _________, I still maintain that __________. For example, _______. Although some might object that _________, I reply that ________. The issue is important because ________. (9)
Anyone who has ever written an argumentative or persuasive piece of writing should recognize as one they have used the structure of reasoning that is given form in those two examples. More to the point, that structure is available to everyone; and it can be learned, like the playing of scales or the mixing of colors, through practice. My students often resist this notion because they think that using the templates will make their writing programmatic, that it will straitjacket them into a voice that is not their own; and it’s not only my freshman composition students who feel this way. My creative writing students who worry that reading other poets will somehow contaminate their style, rob them of what is unique in their work, are expressing a similar fear; and I think it is in part a fear rooted in a consciousness of themselves as already having mastered the language they speak, in which they express themselves using a voice that is already no one else’s and that they feel they will lose if, for example, they try on for size the templates that Graff and Birkenstein are talking about or really study as models to learn from the creative writing of established authors.
The irony, of course, is that those students who do consciously and attentively work with the models I provide for them in the classroom–whether that work is to adopt the models or to work purposefully against them–start to sound more like themselves than they did before; and this is because the scaffolding that the models provide actually allows the content of my students’ ideas, or creative vision, to reveal itself more fully than the muddled, muddy, poorly edited language in which they all-too-often otherwise write. Indeed, Graff and Birkenstein make precisely this point in a couple of different ways, pointing out, for the benefit of instructors using the book, that “templates have a long and rich history. Public orators from ancient Greece and Rome through the European Renaissance studied rhetorical topoi or “commonplaces,” model passages and formulas that represented the different strategies available to public speakers” (xvii). Later, in a section addressed to students called “Do Templates Stifle Creativity?”, the authors make the point more directly:
As for the belief that pre-established forms undermine creativity, we think it rests on a very limited vision of what creativity is all about. In our view, the above template and the others in this book will actually help your writing become more original and creative, not less. After all, even the most creative forms of expression depend on established patterns and structures. Most songwriters, for instance, rely on a time-honored verse-chorus-verse pattern, and few people would call Shakespeare uncreative because he didn’t invent the sonnet or dramatic forms that he used to such dazzling effect. Even the most avant-garde, cutting-edge artists…need to master the basic forms that their work improvises on, departs from, and goes beyond, or else their work will come across as uneducated child’s play. Ultimately, then, creativity and originality lie not in the avoidance of established forms, but in the imaginative use of them. (10-11)
Fish’s goal in How to Write a Sentence is to illuminate some of those forms, not in the template-sense that Graff and Birkenstein are referring to, but as sentence “styles,” by which he means ways of organizing the world; and he wants to do this illumination with as little reference to formal, prescriptive grammatical terms as possible. By and large he succeeds, though not at the level which first excited me about his book, which was that I might be able to use it in my classes. Published as a hardcover, the book costs just $19.99, much less costly than the relatively inexpensive (for college texts) They Say, I Say, which I think costs around $40 or $45, if you buy the volume with readings. Unfortunately, while I really like a lot of what Fish has to say about sentences–“the success of a sentence is measured by the degree to which the [writer’s intended] effect has been achieved” or “The first thing to ask when writing a sentence is ‘What am I trying to do?'” (37)–the sentences he chooses as examples, throughout the book, would be entirely inappropriate for my freshman composition students, who are neither aspiring writers nor English majors. Here, for example, is a sentence from John Milton’s An Apology Against a Pamphlet (1642) that Fish uses as an example of the “subordinating style:”
For me, readers, although I cannot say that I am utterly untrained in those rules which best rhetoricians have given, or unacquainted with those examples which the prime authors of eloquence have written in any learned tongue, yet true eloquence I find to be none but the serious and hearty love of truth, and that whose mind so ever is fully possessed with a fervent desire to know good things and with the dearest charity to infuse the knowledge of them into others, when such a man would speak, his words (by what I can express), like so many nimble and airy servitors, trip about him at command, and in well ordered files, as he would wish, fall aptly into their own places. (Qtd. in Fish 57)
It’s not that I think my students are unable, intellectually or otherwise, to appreciate sentences like the one I have just quoted, but were I to assign them Fish’s book, I would be derelict in my duty if I did not provide them with a good reason to use Milton to develop that ability. Fish takes for granted Milton’s relevance to his readers, and to the degree that he does so, it is clear that I, and people like me, not people like the overwhelming majority of my students, are his audience.
An obvious point, perhaps, but thinking through this distinction in terms of audience between They Say, I Say and How to Write a Sentence has been for me less about the differences between the audiences, or even between the books, than about figuring out the relationships between and among myself as a writer, a teacher and a reader. I started out by saying that I miss doing the kind of reading that feeds my writing, and Fish’s book, despite the fact that his example sentences are taken overwhelming from canonical (white male) writers (with whom there is nothing wrong; it’s just a very narrow field of vision), connected me once more to one of the ways that reading can be so nourishing. Here he is taking apart, as a writer, not a teacher and not a critic, but as a writer, the first sentence of Agatha Christie’s book Nemesis: “In the afternoons it was the custom of Miss Jane Marple to unfold her second newspaper.”
Even before we meet Christie’s detective-heroine, Miss Marple, we know a great deal about her. She has a routine, she follows it, and it occurs daily. Indeed, it is more than a routine. It is a custom, a word that suggests tradition, duration, and an obligatory practice tied to social class and norms. (These suggestions are enhanced by the slow progress of her full title, “Miss Jane Marple.”) Moreover, oe senses that “custom” is not for her a thing easily trifled with. Her customs, we intuit, are methodically, even ritualistically observed. We know this from the word “unfold”; unfolding is so much more formal than opening; merely opening a newspaper, in any which way, would seem indecorous and overhasty to her…. The word that sets the seal on this mini-portrait is “second.” The word is casually delivered, but because it comes late and constitutes a small surprise–it tells us that this is part two of her custom, something we hadn’t been expecting–it calls attention to itself and to its message: Miss Marple is not content with one source of information; she has to know everything. And she will know everything. You wouldn’t want to be someone who has something to hide. (100-101)
I remember when I used to write paragraphs like that in my journal trying to figure out how and why the words of certain writers were able to move me as powerfully as they did, and it makes me sad that I have not done that for a very long time. Or at least that I have not done it for myself, for its own pleasure, its own sake; that, most recently anyway, I have done it only in the service of teaching. Indeed, I had not realized until I finished How to Write a Sentence just how thoroughly teaching had infiltrated my sense of myself as a literary person, a reader and a writer. It’s evident to some degree in the form this blog post has taken, moving as it does through a discussion of writing pedagogy in order to get to here, to the issues that are most important to me.
I used to dismiss the warnings of writers who talked about the dangers that teaching could pose to being able to write, to do one’s own work. For a long time, I was teaching and I was writing, and I was productive. I’ve published five books after all (The Teller of Tales is not yet on the page that link takes you to); I have begun to make a small name for myself as a translator of classical Iranian poetry; my own book of poems was well-received and well-reviewed when it came out; but if I am honest with myself, I have to admit that the more I became immersed in my professional life, the more I pushed writing and reading into the corners of the larger life I was living as a husband, father and more, stealing time for it when I could, always putting other things first, and it’s only now that I am allowing myself to feel how deeply unsatisfying this has been, how, little by little, I have let this part of who I am–where I am most fully engaged with the world; or, better, where my engagement with the world takes its best and most enduring and most meaningful and even most joyous form–slip away. I love teaching and everything it stands for, and it’s important to me to make clear that this post is not about being burned out. I’m not leaving my profession. Rather, it’s about remembering that my profession exists in the context of a much larger truth about who I am, that I am, as e. e. cummings said of poets in his introduction to Is 5, someone “to whom things made matter very little–somebody who is obsessed by Making.” It is time for me to organize my life once more around that truth.
Cross-posted on It’s All Connected.