One of my creative writing students’ assignments this semester is a series of blog posts, one each month, that addresses examples of techniques that they find instructive or pieces of advice that are edifying to them as writers. The focus of each of their posts may be any of the following:
an essay, story, poem, or play in our textbook, Imaginative Writing
a class handout
textbook author Janet Burroway’s observations on craft
another author’s observations on craft
a writing prompt from the CVCC Writing Club
a guest writer’s remarks on craft (some local writers will visit our class)
While I was mulling options for my own post for the assignment, Roy Peter Clark’s new book, Murder Your Darlings and Other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser, arrived in the mail. That’s it, I thought. I’d found my subject.
When I turned to the table of contents, the heading “Voice and Style” caught my eye. Sentence variety has been on my brain for the past few days since I’ve been discussing it in both my creative writing and composition classes, so I chose that section of the book as the starting point for my reading—specifically Clark’s chapter on varying sentence length. There Clark draws on advice from the late Ursula K. Le Guin, best known as a writer of science fiction and fantasy. Le Guin acknowledges that a few isolated short sentences—or a series of them—can be effective, but she demonstrates the strength and beauty of variety in this passage:
Most children enjoy the sound of writing for its own sake. They wallow in repetitions and luscious word-sounds and the crunch and slither of onomatopoeia; they fall in love with musical or impressive words and use them in all the wrong places. Some writers keep this primal interest in and love for the sound of language. Others outgrow their oral/aural sense of what they’re reading or writing. That’s a dead loss. An awareness of what your own writing sounds like is an essential skill for a writer. Fortunately it’s quite easy to cultivate, to learn or reawaken. (qtd. in Clark 66)
Clark follows that excerpt with the word count of each of Le Guin’s seven sentences: eleven, thirty-two, fourteen, twelve, four, sixteen, and ten. For writers who compose by ear, that exercise of counting words may be more useful than the dissection of phrases and clauses. It’s a practice I plan to adopt and model for my students.
Clark, Roy Peter. Murder Your Darlings and Other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser. Little, Brown Spark, 2020.
Or Revisiting Roy Peter Clark’s Essay with My Students
Two weeks ago, after my students read Roy Peter Clark’s essay “I Won’t Use Writing as Punishment, I Won’t . . . ,” I asked them to compose responses to his claim that “writing as punishment is still with us” (4). I admit I doubted its relevance; Clark wrote the essay years ago, “more than 20,” he observes in the author’s note in our textbook, adding that he wishes “it was too old-fashioned or obsolete to reprint” (4).
Maybe Clark’s essay was too old-fashioned or obsolete, I thought. I certainly didn’t expect the majority of my students to recount stories of writing as punishment. But they did. Most had their own stories; others recalled instances of classmates forced to put pen to paper in detention hall.
I’ve been thinking about all those stories, ones of sentences starting with the words “I will not . . . ,” others of dictionary entries, textbook chapters, and Bible verses—yes, Bible verses—copied longhand for various offenses. Sometimes rather than copying someone else’s sentences, students were required to compose their own. Showing up for school with facial hair landed one student the assignment of writing an essay extolling the importance of being clean-shaven (as the school handbook required). Others had to explain in writing why they were repeatedly tardy. Some recalled the assignment of writing letters of apology addressed to teachers whom they or other students had treated disrespectfully. Just what they did to the teachers, I don’t know. (Details, like batteries, not included.)
I suppose, at least, that writing those letters of apology proved more instructive than writing one-hundred times, “I will not dis’ the teacher.” Still, the act of copying a sentence, not to present as your own–I would hardly advocate plagiarism—but to recreate its rhythm with your own hand can be a vital exercise. (That’s one reason I require students to write quotations in their journals, and I do in mine.) But if students have copied sentences as punishment, it may be hard for them to see the act of transcription as anything other than punishment. And writing their own words may seem punitive, too, if they’ve been sentenced to write letters and essays in the service of explanations and apologies.
My students’ responses to Clark’s essay reveal that basically every form of writing that I require of them is one that they’ve written or witnessed other students write as a form of punishment. It shouldn’t surprise me that the problem remains prevalent, but it does because it’s clearly so wrong-headed. Just how wrong-headed, Clark showed more than twenty years ago when he first asked readers to imagine ourselves telling a child that because he’s been bad, he has to draw a picture or play the piano. Of course we don’t punish children with art or music, but teachers continue to punish students with writing and then lament the fact that they don’t like to write or that they don’t write well. That said, memories of punishment aren’t the only obstacle, or even the main one, for us–yes, “us,” I write as I struggle to finish this paragraph. Simply put, writing is hard. And now in the digital age, the difficulty of developing our ideas grows as our writing shrinks to fwr ltrs & wrds.
Every year as I prepare to teach a new group of freshmen, or first-year students as they’re now called, I ask myself how I can make their first college writing class seem like more of a first rather than more of the same. This year one of my answers is the two books that I chose—ones that I’ve never used before—which approach writing in vastly different ways. The book that includes Clark’s essay addresses social and cultural aspects of writing. The other book, Stanley Fish’sHow to Write a Sentence, as its title tells us, focuses on technique. I’ve also changed the daily journal assignment. Along with writing a quotation from their reading, they write one from something they weren’t required to read. It may seem like more punishment to them, and yes, I’m aware of the irony of requiring them to write lines from something they read for pleasure. But I want to convey to them the importance of reading for themselves by placing a value on it, giving it a place in their journals and in class discussion. And I also want to instill the importance of writing that isn’t evaluated, which I do through private freewriting in class and through letter writing. For their monthly letter-writing assignment, students submit a letter mail-ready: stamped and addressed in a sealed envelope. I don’t read the letters because I’m not evaluating them; I’m crediting students with the act of writing, which may seem like even more punishment.
Yet perhaps when they notice that I’m writing along with them—not just when they’re freewriting in class, but that I’m also composing journal entries, letters, blog entries, and essays—some will begin to see all of this as something other than punishment. Then again, they may not. (They may see me as inflicting punishment on myself as well as on them.)
By approaching my teaching as I approach my writing—as a work in progress, subject to revision—my own ideas about how to teach writing continue to evolve. Attitudes developed over the years aren’t likely to transform over the course of one semester. But they can change. And writing about our attitudes toward reading and writing—as I have here, and my students will in their first papers—offers a place to start.
Clark, Roy Peter. “I Won’t Use Writing as Punishment. I Won’t . . .” Essays on Writing. Ed. Lizbeth A. Bryant and Heather M. Clark. Boston: Longman, 2009. 4-10. Print.