The Teaching of Writing

Teenagers and students in their early twenties make teaching an endlessly exciting experience for me. Young people have a particular gift for reviving freshness of thought and language and emotion. Last year, for instance, one of my sixteen-year-old students began a composition with these words:

All during dinner I was sitting in the Chablis wine bottle, oblivious to what my father was saying. The cool, clear liquid held me up buoyantly, like a turtle on a lake in spring. I saw myself swimming gently, easily, over to the side of the bottle nearest to my father, and I was treading wine. The green glass distorted his face horribly so that his moustache and lips were merged in a snarl which became grotesque every time he moved his mouth to chew.

The picture these sentences evoke is startling in its purity and far more revealing than a long discourse on the lack of communication between a father and his daughter. Words like these make an oasis, richly green and deep with shadows, in the parched wasteland of daily talk.

How to release reluctant students to speech is the first problem for the teacher of writing. At times the young find it as difficult to express their inner thoughts in words as do those whose minds have solidified into all but unbreakable moods. But why, after all, should this inability to speak with the heart as well as with the lips be blamed on “restrictive teaching”? Is it not more a case of restrictive thinking (induced by restrictive living) causing this muteness, which perhaps no teacher can cure? One can suggest reading to such students—great poetry, great novels—to help allay the fear of speaking. But one cannot be sure that the students will dare to understand the words that other men have said. It takes courage to say things differently: Caution and cowardice dictate the use of the cliché.

One can speak of Dylan Thomas crying out in fervor and eagerness, while still in his early teens, “If Paradise Lost had not already been written, I would have written it!” One can suggest to one’s students that they forget for the moment the daily, insoluble problems of family conflicts, or creative writing courses, or difficulties in transportation, and write of the night mind, of their own night minds. But this does not mean that they will instantly begin to probe beneath their conscious thoughts for the great fortune that is lying there like hidden gold.

Once I quoted to a class of adults André Malraux’s statement that to fulfill one’s destiny one must never cease converting one’s life to wider concepts and wider uses.

“Well, how would you suggest I do that here in this small town?” a gentle old lady student once asked.

“Perhaps each of us has to find the way himself,” was the only answer I could give her. “In the Connecticut town where I live, for instance,” I added, “I entered into the lives of the men on skid row, tragic derelicts of men who stood all day in doorways, or leaned in huddled groups against a wall, where the sun would warm their blood for a little while. . . .”

And the little old lady asked me then, “Well, if I did that here, what kind of a dress do you think I should wear?”

Most adults, having somehow lost touch with the great simplicities, have forgotten that to write is to speak of one’s beliefs. Turning out a typescript with the number of words neatly estimated in the upper right hand corner of the first page has nothing to do with writing. Neither have questions about the prices paid by Harper’s Magazine or the Atlantic Monthly or the Ladies’ Home Journal or Esquire. Writing is something else entirely, as the young instinctively know.

One of the last things Albert Camus averred before his untimely death was that “a man’s work is nothing but a long journey to recover through the detours of art the two or three simple and great images which first gained access to his heart.” At times I ask my students to write of nothing at all until they can define those images. Only when they have done so are they in some measure prepared for that long journey of which Camus spoke.

For the benefit of one of my students who actually believed that writers must be intellectuals, Robert Frost sat down with me and her and explained the vast difference between the two. “Intellectuals,” he said, with a gesture of impatience at the thought of them, “deal in abstractions. It’s much safer that way. Writers take risks. They deal in anecdotes and parables. The Bible is written in anecdotes and parables.”

It is not always easy to convince students that what Frost said is true. To the recalcitrant who may, quite paradoxically, accept the miracle of Christianity while rejecting the inner world created by the mind of man, I tell the following anecdote:

My friend, a French painter and Resistance fighter, was put in a concentration camp by the Nazis. Every evening during his long incarceration, he and two or three of his fellow prisoners created a world to which their jailers had no access. Entirely by means of conversation and gestures, they dressed for dinner in immaculate white shirts that did not exist, and placed, at times with some difficulty because of the starched material that wasn’t there, pearl or ruby studs and cuff links in those shirts. With the greatest gallantry and deference, they helped one another into jackets that were formal or informal, as befitted the restaurant in which they had chosen to dine.

Moreover, these imprisoned men took on different identities every evening, and the conversation therefore differed as they sat down at a table glittering with silver and crystal that their eyes only could perceive. With their varying identities, the menu and the wine also differed. If they were playing the role of distinguished diplomats, the conversation was of wooded alpine regions and the hunt, and they ordered wild boar and pheasant from the waiter who was not there. On occasion, they sent dishes back if the food was not done to their liking.

They drank Châteauneuf-du-Pape throughout the meal and Château d’Yquem with the dessert pastry. At times, after tasting the wine, they found it had not been properly corked and they had it taken away. There were certain restaurants they did not patronize a second time because the lobster had been overcooked or the after-dinner brandy had not been served in the traditional wide-bowled crystal that one could cradle in the hand.

On the evenings that they saw themselves as men of letters, they quoted from the great poets while they dined, reciting all the lines they could remember of Homer, Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare. If they were scientists, at least one among them would be a Nobel Prize winner, and they would discuss da Vinci and Spengler and Einstein. The words they spoke were real, if nothing else was, and the lonely courage that other men had expressed gave them the courage to survive.

So to those students who have not found the way to write from inside the bottle of Chablis, one must never cease to offer bottles of even richer, finer wines. And one can ask them as well to listen to the words of a very great young writer of our time, James Baldwin, whose fervent essays put much of contemporary, so-called creative writing to everlasting shame. “Although we do not wholly believe it yet,” Baldwin has said, “the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect upon the world.” If we as writers and as teachers can communicate that quite simple truth to others, then we shall have fulfilled our roles.

From Words That Must Somehow Be Said: Selected Essays of Kay Boyle (North Point Press, 1985).
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