A Philosophy of Writing

Teaching is an odd business. Not least because what is taught is not necessarily what the student hears.

Of course, since teachers cannot possibly prepare something that will be digestible by everyone, that observation is not a particularly deep insight. But it is worth keeping in mind because of what we can build on that idea.

What does that kind of miscommunication mean for teaching about writing, in particular? Let’s assume that one is teaching about point of view (first person, omniscient, etc.) The student perhaps hears that such points of view exist, and immediately writes something that incorporates every single possible POV.

The student happily presents his work, and the teacher is confronted with something like the dead birds that cats bring home to their owners. And are likewise amazed, no doubt.

This is the key thing about learning: that which is actually learned (internalized and used) is not necessarily even related to what is taught.

That specific maladaptive sort of learning is my exact area of expertise as a student. I mis-do it so well.

But I am hardly alone in that. The disconnections between student and teacher are a positive thing, not a hindrance to learning. They are the difference between rote memorization (which I would not even call learning) and creative adaptation.

A good student, then, applies what she hears to her own situation. That is my definition of learning. Further, the student must tear down what they have learned before, and be ready to modify it or even destroy it to incorporate the lesson. ‘Good’ students are superb craftsmen, always on the lookout for a new tool.

But remember that what she hears is not necessarily, or often, what was being taught.

This means that a student can, willy-nilly, completely mangle the process. This is not necessarily negative; the positive outcomes are actually obvious: one can be learning addition and subtraction and find the internal wherewithal to extrapolate that to the commutative law, or, more modestly, may intuit that subtraction is really addition with negative numbers allowed.

The negative outcomes can be life-long misdirections. Perhaps it is as simple as a mnemonic device with a transcription error (“e before I except after t”). Or perhaps it as deadly as a certainty that the use of semi-colons is forbidden.

(Sadly, these are real-life examples, all—although the semi-colon fearing individual made a full recovery in late middle age.)

I had a vision of the true nature of writing (in the shower one morning, a common place for such religious inspirations). The idea was simple: writing is like a musical transposition of keys: from the key of Life to the key of Writing.

In western music, transposition is fully governed by simple rules. But there are musical systems where such rules don’t, maybe can’t, exist. It is that kind of transposition that writing mimics. If you must think is Western terms, think of it as a transposition of a piece for violin into a piece for drums.

But I realized there was more to be mined from that metaphor than was immediately apparent. The key insight was to look at the problem as one of musical arrangement: writing is the art of taking random acts (sounds) out of Life and transposing them not only to a new ‘key’, but arranging them for a most particular instrument: the mind and emotions of the reader.

The most powerful insight I ever had about writing was that, in my daydream’s specific words, “I have access to the emotions.” It is critical to have, and to use, that access on both ends of the writing process: access to the emotions of characters, and access to the emotions of the reader.

As a writer, one must take on full responsibility for dredging emotionally in both places at the same time. One must grasp the emotional intent of the original material—a kiss on a subway, the way a flock of birds startles and changes direction, the raise of an eyebrow, a sentence that seems fraught with feeling, an idea that questions everything your reader may have thought—and then, step two, put it down in words in a way that readers can get.

Every reader won’t get it, of course; the best writing is so full of emotional connections, however, that the attentive reader enters a state of getting.

Are you familiar with the phrase, “a willing suspension of disbelief?” That only hints at the full nature of the connection between writer and reader. The acts of writing and reading are more profound than that. We, the writers, work within the framework of a story, using various conventions and original elements so that we gain the trust of the reader. We must be always conscious of how to gain that trust, of having gained it, and of daring the reader to let us flex our muscles on their behalf by means of that continous connection.

Unfortunately, there are may ways for a writer to break that connection. They are all things that can be taught to writers by teachers: use of grammar, maintenance of tension, invention of deep characters, compelling action, and so on. But one must transcend both the techniques and the teaching. One needs access to and control of emotion to write vivid, risky, engaging stuff.

I think it’s reasonable to ask if that can be taught. It can, in my opinion, but I would hesitate to simply call it teaching.

Here is where I return to the original premise. Good teaching, like good writing, involves that same access to emotion in both delivery and receipt, as well as engaging the student’s intelligence. Again, there’s a simple term for it: inspiration. It’s not just ‘good’ teachers who can do this. It’s nearly all about the connection, that willingness in the student to learn. A great teacher will not connection with every student, though ‘great’ may be nothing more than charisma that gets the student to open up and listen.

I’m a terrible student myself; I’m usually so busy rushing down my own alleys that I frequently don’t listen to even good advice. That is a bad habit, born of grade school horrors. But I do love to learn, and I’ve learned this: the trip to Carnegie Hall or the podium is largely out of one’s own hands, at least for the vast majority of aspiring artists and writers. The one thing you can control is practice, practice, practice. It leads to insight, and if you have teachers you can trust, you can go a long, long way toward your dream—which has far more value than a stage or a podium arbitrarily reached. (Though lets not ignore the value of stages and podiums! Teachers use them quite often…)

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