Teaching writing sometimes feels like giving handguns to zombies. You’re pretty sure most of them aren’t going to use them at all, and the ones who do are as likely to blow off their own heads as hit some kind of target.
And, of course, most of them are similarly dead inside.
One of the writing aphorisms I offer to my students is:
If your story can evoke such strong feelings that I don’t notice its flaws, you win.
In fact, the longer I teach and write, the more I think that all of the storytelling mechanics we teach like characterization, dialogue, and point of view are virtually useless except for autopsy. If your story is truly alive, nobody will notice if those things aren’t exactly “right.” If your story is dead, they can’t save it.
They’re the trivia we discuss when we don’t have the courage to say, “Nope. Try again, this time with feeling.”
I’ve spent too much of my teaching career regurgitating all of the rules that have hampered my best work and characterized my worst. Where’s the rising action? Why doesn’t this protagonist protag? What’s this person’s inner and outer goal? It bores writers to hear and bores me to talk about. It’s disingenuous, too; I don’t write with thoughts like that in mind and most of my friends don’t, either.
All I know is that when I grade the stories that result from my teaching, they make me want to kill myself. Yeah, the grammar and punctuation are horrifying, but they’re not nearly as bad as the shuffling of unfelt words across the page like elephants to their secret dying ground.
(Wow. I use a lot of morbid imagery here. But there’s nothing quite so morbidly dead as a bad story, is there?)
Can you get excited about something? Doesn’t anything make you angry or afraid? Can you put yourself inside it, identify with it? Can you remember when you felt a certain way and get it on the page? Can you show up and put something of yourself in this story? If not, then it isn’t yours to write.
It can’t be a coincidence that the exercises I give in class result in far better writing than any of the stories that the students submit. I’m asking them to think and feel and write fast, before there’s time for all the rules to get in the way. And though I don’t think it is possible to get very far as a writer without knowing some of the rules, I know for certain that you don’t go ANYWHERE knowing ONLY the rules.
I regret that so many of my students have left my care knowing more about commas and less about what really matters on the page.
I think I need to change my teaching emphasis from fixing sentences and paragraphs to helping students reach something close to actual human feelings. It’s more interesting to me in all my morbid curiosity about people, it’s more interesting for them to talk about what really matters, and it results in something useful even if the students never write again: a sense that they have deep energy reserves within themselves for doing anything they care about.
They’re not all going to be writers. I just hope they’ll leave as human beings.