What I Tell My Introduction-to-Creative-Writing Students on The First Day of Class

“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.

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15 Responses to What I Tell My Introduction-to-Creative-Writing Students on The First Day of Class

  1. 1
    Seriously? says:

    I’m a bit puzzled by your quote, namely the spelling “King-fu Tze” . It does not match any of the spellings I have EVER seen, in any language.

    It is vaguely reminiscent of K’ung Fu-Tzu, which is the accepted phonetic approximation if you follow the Wade conventions. But putting the dash between King and fu without a corresponding dash between fu and Tze, implies a stronger connection between the first two words (characters) than the second two.

    This shows complete ignorance of the meaning. You can argue over the pronunciation of 夫子 (grand master) but splitting it to link half of it to the given name is weird at best. Given which character we are talking about, was someone making a feminist joke that I am failing to catch?

    So… after you led with a quote like that, to be honest, I could not stop thinking about it while I was reading the rest of the article.

  2. First, Seriously?, thanks for catching that typo. It should read Kung-fu Tze, which is the spelling Sam Hamill uses. Your discussion of the characters is way beyond my ken. I have no idea what Hamill’s justification would be. Thanks again, though, for catching that typo.

  3. 3
    Ben Lehman says:

    Yeah, it should be K’ung Fu-Tzu, in Wade-Giles. Or Kong Fuzi, in Pinyin. Or just “Confucius” another perfectly legitimate (and more comprehensible) way of referring to him in English. That said, in an essay about name rectification, it’s a funny typo.

    Rectification of names is a fascinating doctrine, worth studying in more detail.

  4. 4
    MJJ says:

    Speaking of various Mandarin-Roman transliteration systems, Zhou Youguang, the author of the pinyin system, died recently at the age of 111.

  5. 5
    Seriously? says:

    One of the meanings of the 夫 character is “man”, I would not say the main meaning, but it is the accepted pictographic explanation. In this particular case, it enhances 子 (master, gentleman, and what not) by turning it in to a much stronger honorific.

    When I saw the dash in the wrong place, I thought that the author may be making a joke, something like “Master King the Macho Man”, as opposed to “The very honorable K’ung”.

    Using an very unorthodox variant of Confucius, in a discussion about using the right name?

    I thought it meant more than “I have no clue what I am talking about, but I want to appear better than you, and make you insecure by using a variant that you will not recognize in the fraction of second it will take you to get to (Confucius).”

    And before you remind me that people often suspect others of their own sins, know that I am well aware of it. :-)

  6. 6
    Elkins says:

    A sentence uttered makes a world appear
    Where all things happen as it says they do;
    We doubt the speaker, not the tongue we hear:
    Words have no word for words that are not true.

  7. 7
    Ebit says:

    Seriously? sez:

    ****************
    I thought it meant more than “I have no clue what I am talking about, but I want to appear better than you, and make you insecure by using a variant that you will not recognize in the fraction of second it will take you to get to (Confucius).”
    ****************

    That’s what I immediately thought, but I didn’t really want to say it.

    This strongly brings to mind a guy named Hugo Schwyzer, who was coincidentally also a community college “perfesser”. He had a habit of shoehorning in a 10-dollar word when language for the unwashed masses may have been a better fit. He actually know some good big words (like “irenic”, which I had to look up), but he couldn’t really reason his way out of a wet paper bag.

  8. 8
    Ampersand says:

    I thought it meant more than “I have no clue what I am talking about, but I want to appear better than you, and make you insecure by using a variant that you will not recognize in the fraction of second it will take you to get to (Confucius).”

    And

    This strongly brings to mind a guy named Hugo Schwyzer,

    The first is just a straighforward personal attack on Richard.

    The second is comparing Richard to someone who is mainly famous for having sex with his students and at at one time (so he claimed) trying to murder a girlfriend.

    Both of you are making personal attacks; both of you are taking this thread way off topic.

    And now both of you are being shown the door. Thanks for your participation, but you’re no longer welcome on this blog. Have a nice day.

  9. 9
    Ampersand says:

    (I know that banning them without any warnings is stricter than I usually am. But I strongly suspect that both of them are people who have already been banned from “Alas,” returning under new names; that makes me less inclined towards leniency.)

    (Sorry for interrupting your thread, Richard.)

  10. 10
    Seriously? says:

    How on Earth is the above an attack on Richard? It was an attack on Sam Hamill, and I know for a fact that they are not the same person.

    It cannot be against this site’s policy to attack someone who’s been quoted in an article, can it?

  11. 11
    Ampersand says:

    Good point, Seriously? My bad; I read carelessly. You are now un-banned.

  12. I just sat down at my desk, so I’m just seeing all these comments now. Thanks, Amp.

  13. 13
    Ben Lehman says:

    I honestly think you guys are being a bit bombastic. Using other romanization systems to refer to Confucius, with the falsely implied insider knowledge and authenticity, is a bit of showy pretentiousness. Getting them wrong — particularly in the context — is hilarious. But it’s no more than that. It’s not some evidence of secret moral failing. It’s just a bit of pretension, and a typo, two things that we have all been guilty of.

    Honestly, I wish that the point have been made that point without reference to Confucius. Bringing in the Rectification of the Names — an extremely conservative cultural doctrine — introduces a whole host of concepts that are, at best, superfluous to the main point and, at worst, adverse to it.

  14. Honestly, I wish that the point [had] been made…without reference to Confucius. Bringing in the Rectification of the Names — an extremely conservative cultural doctrine — introduces a whole host of concepts that are, at best, superfluous to the main point and, at worst, adverse to it.

    That’s really interesting, Ben, because Hamill’s essay is anything but conservative. Hence, my attraction to the quote. I will definitely check out the link you provided above.

  15. 15
    nobody.really says:

    My quibble—oddly unrelated to finding the “true name” for Confucius:

    [A]s Kung-fu Tze [Confucius] said, ‘All wisdom is rooted in learning to call things by the right name.’

    But as Zhuang Zhou [Zhuangzi] said circa 550 – 250 BC:

    The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish. When the fish are caught, the trap is forgotten.
    The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten.
    The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten.
    But where can I find someone who has forgotten words? That is the person I want to speak with.

    In short, yes, we must transcend the tendency to call things by euphemisms. This tendency deadens language, and thus thought.

    But next, we must transcend the notion that some kind of magic attaches to the name we attach to a thing. Rather, we need to seek to understand ideas, and realize that words (names) are merely tools for conveying ideas.

    Yes, revelation of an idea can lead to resolution of a problem. And yes, finding something’s true name can lead to revelation—in the story Rumpelstiltskin. Otherwise, not so much. We still need to do the hard work of understanding ideas. And then refining our understanding. No amount of learning “true names” is a substitute.

    In short, the quest for “true names” can become a crutch—an implement useful for a transitional period, but an impediment thereafter. If students cannot break themselves of using the anodyne phrase “sleeping together,” it may jolt their thinking to encourage them to say “fucking.” But students should not then come to imagine that the word “fucking” encompasses everything there is to say on the subject.

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