The angst of teaching writing
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.