Ordinarily I don’t blog about a book until I’ve finished it, but John Warner’s spot-on observations on the crafts of writing and acting prompted me to pause in my reading and share this passage:
Imagine an acting school where rather than helping students develop the individual skills of building a performance, students are required to learn a series of impressions of genuine actors performing a role. Deniro 101 would cover Travis Bickle and the father in Meet the Parents, for example. Meryl Streep’s various performances would be 400-level, no doubt. Our aspiring actors would be graded on 45-second snippet imitations, judged on how accurate they are to the standard set in the original performance.
But what happens when our young thespians are tasked with a role they haven’t learned to mimic, a performance that doesn’t yet exist?
This is how we teach students to write. Don’t be a writer, we tell them, just do some things that make it look like you know how to write. And when in doubt, at least sound smart by using words like ubiquitous and plethora. If you really want to show off, try myriad.
And when students wind up in college in classes like mine and I tell them the game had changed, that in fact it isn’t a game at all, students feel like someone has played a cruel trick. Each successive cohort seems less prepared for the challenges of my college-writing class than the last, not because they’re getting less intelligent, or don’t want to learn, or have been warped by the ‘everyone-gets-a-trophy’ culture, but because they have been incentivized to create imitations rather than the genuine article. (6-7)
As a writer and actor, I often reflect on the similarities between creating for the stage and the page, but it never before occurred to me to convey to my students what now seems vital to their instruction: how self-conscious artifice makes both writing and acting fall flat.
In the first chapter of Why They Can’t Write, John Warner has given me a new insight to share with my students. And no doubt he’ll give me more before I finish reading.
Warner, John. Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Johns Hopkins U., 2018. pp. 6-7.
John Warner teaches writing at the College of Charleston, and his blog “Just Visiting” is featured twice weekly in Inside Higher Education. From 2003-2008 he edited McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.