“The first duty of the writer is the rectification of names—to name things properly, for, as Kung-fu Tze [Confucius] said, ‘All wisdom is rooted in learning to call things by the right name.’” —Sam Hamill, “The Necessity to Speak”
To name a thing correctly is to change the world in which that thing exists. There was a time, for example, when it was legally impossible to charge a husband with raping his wife. Or, for that matter, a wife with raping her husband. Why? Because the fact of being married was understood to mean, on the part of both husband and wife, a perpetual state of sexual consent. Once we acknowledged that consent is something that is given, or not, during each and every sexual encounter, forced sex within marriage became recognizable for the rape that it is, and once that naming was complete, both the world within a marriage and the world within which marriage exists—at least here in the United States—changed. The “rectification of names,” in other words, has serious personal and political consequences, though not always on such a grand scale. We all know the uncomfortable, disconnected, out of joint sensation of wanting to communicate something to someone, but not being able to find the right words, and we all know as well not only the “click” that happens when we do find the right words and the world suddenly falls into place, but also the difference between the lives we live after that “click” and the lives we were living before it. That difference might be as relatively small as the choice to start waking up earlier so you aren’t always late to class or as consequential as the choice to move out of your parents’ house and get your own apartment or to live abroad for a year in a country where you don’t speak the language. Whether it’s big or small, however, the choice will have consequences.
The things you will try to name in the writing you will do this semester—fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction—are less easily summarized in a single phrase or sentence than those I’ve listed above. Rather than simply naming the desire to get an apartment, for example, you will try to name, to depict as accurately as possible, the experience of having that desire. This kind of naming will demand of you a willingness to engage language more deeply, more subtly, more fully than you may have done in previous English classes. You will not be telling your readers what you think or feel—or, in the case of creative nonfiction, merely what you think or feel—nor will you be telling them what you think they should think or feel. Rather, you will be inviting them to explore what it feels like to think or feel about the things that matter to you. To learn to do that is to pursue a connection between your facility with language and the content—intellectual, creative and otherwise—of your character. I do not mean by this that people who cannot write well have no character or that writing is the only way in which people can show their character. I mean, simply, that you cannot write well if you do not make this connection, because not to make it is to fail, as a writer, in holding yourself accountable for the quality of your own thinking and feeling. Or, to put it another way, it is to fail to take your own intellect and creativity seriously.
As a teacher of creative writing, I measure my success not in how many A’s or B’s I give out—since grades reflect the surface of learning, not necessarily its quality—but in whether my students have begun to take on the responsibility not simply of having something to say, but of having the audacity to find words compelling enough to command a reader’s attention above and beyond the fact that they were written in response to a classroom assignment. That is the challenge we will face together this semester. I am looking forward to it.