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The angst of teaching writing

March 6, 2010

Yesterday when I was giving a talk to a group of high school students, I told them about my high school English teacher, who saved my life (literally, I think) by taking an interest in me, praising me, and inspiring me. But her memory has been something of a curse in my writing life and I wonder if this is how my students will remember me. She had a lot of rules many of which I used to pass on: never use the verb “to be,” (the passive voice), avoid “so,” and, of course, never use adverbs. To this day, I feel guilty every time I write “is” or “was.” Where is that active verb? The one that will convey what I need conveyed. cracked, not was cracked. And do I really need that adverb, guiltily, grumpily. But I am turning some sort of corner. Recently, I have had to acknowledge that the verb “to be” is my best friend. So, by the way is “so.” And I really like adverbs. The good thing about history, writing about it and reading it, is that it reminds me how literary fashions change. This is what I tried to say to the students, that if I lived in the 1740s I would be advising them to tell, not show, to avoid specific examples, to be more general, and by all means to stop being so concrete. If John Keats were to come to my poetry workshop, I am afraid I would say, “Why Grecian?” Isn’t that a little pompous? What about using “Greek” instead? And “Urn,” What about “pot”? Isn’t it self-evident that the poem is an ode: How about leaving that out? You could just call the poem, “Greek Pot.” Maybe a date would help, too. How about “Greek Pot, 2010.” But this kind of thinking makes every writing class I teach an existential crisis. Maybe I should stick to teaching history.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2010 7:16 pm

    I love adverbs. I also love “so.”

    How do you feel about “Grecian Formula”? Do you think “Greek Mix” would attract a larger number of dissatisfied gray-haired men?

  2. March 17, 2010 12:14 am

    “Don’t use the passive voice ever” is the most misleading writing “rule” ever–I love teaching that, and the reasons why, to the undergrads in the advanced academic writing course I work for because it totally blows their minds, just like it totally blew mine. All that matters is that there’s some action conveyed in the verb that the reader values. Why is it so hard to think about writing for our readers, rather than the various internalized voices in our own heads?

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