Writers “Go to School Among Themselves”

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Published

1988
Growing Without Schooling

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After college, in a second-hand bookstore in New York, I happened upon a book called The Written Word by Gorham Munson. Munson was a prominent writer in the l930s who taught a course on writing at the New School. But he was skeptical of the classroom approach to his work. “Writing can only be self-taught,” he wrote, adding that writers “go to school among themselves.”

This has been my experience, both as a writer and as someone who has tried to help younger writers. The way to be a writer is to write. The basic mechanics are fairly simple. Beyond that, it’s mainly trial and error, being around people who write (via print if not in person), and breathing in the air.

I wouldn’t say that courses, consultants, and the like are totally without value. For some, these may be the only ways they know to enter the community of the craft. But more often than not, it’s just cultural habit that makes us think that lf we want to do something, we have to take a course first.

My friend Jack is a carpenter. People are always asking him to fix things, from electrical wiring to windows. I asked him once how he learned to do so much. “The only difference between me and other people,” he said, “is that I’m not afraid to try.”

Formal schooling works a lot of mischief. Many of us learn that writing is a chore, like long-division or push-ups. Diagramming sentences can do to one’s feel for the language what dissecting embalmed frogs can do to one’s sense of life. One high school English teacher even made us number our sentences, and woe to us if the margins weren’t the right width.

In my case, this kind of training contributed to a massive case of writer’s block that bedeviled my college years. In college, students have a captive audience — the professor. They write to show how much they know. In most cases, their writing role models are atrocious. About ten years ago a puckish researcher at the University of Pennsylvania tested some academics on how they rated various pieces of writing. Finding: the more obscure and full of jargon, the better the academics thought it was. (The name of the textbook in the required freshmen writing course was The Logic and Rhetoric of Exposition.  Academics can’t bring themselves to say something as simple as “How To Say Things Clearly.”)

On the job, by contrast, there’s a crucial reality check –- a reader whose attention must be earned. At newspapers and magazines, that reader hovers over every typewriter and word processor. I find in working with younger writers that I often talk less about writing than about readers. How to connect to what they already know. How to anticipate their questions. How to hold their interest.

The strangest idea of all is that of journalism school. The need for it is totally beyond me. Anyone who can write a sentence should be able to write a story. The best way to learn to do it is to be around people who are doing it well.

Teachers do appear. As I work with younger writers, I’m beginning to understand this, There is something about an individual with an avid wish to write that almost compels those who can help to do so.

The truly fortunate ones find that teacher or editor of a writer’s dreams, I once knew such a man. His name was Neil Millar. He was humble and brilliant, a man whose merry wit had no barbs, who instructed by lifting up instead of running down. Neil had a knack for making you feel more who you are. But soon after I got to know him, he passed away.

I still learn from Neil. But probably like most people who write, I have served my apprenticeship in various ways, rather than to one individual. There have been writers who became models. And casual shop talk — a writer’s ear pounces hungrily upon hints and clues. A reader’s response, also, especially from a friend who is friend enough to be honest. The mere act of handing a manuscript to a trusted editor can cause one to grasp immediately what is wrong with it before a word is spoken. But my most merciless teacher is what I wrote last month or last night. It’s the gnawing awareness of falling short that pushes us up the mountain, if anything will.

We can’t watch writers work, the way we watch a dry-wall man or an electrician. But we can learn from being around them, from what they say to us. Early on, encouragement is the main thing. For me, I think it was my tenth grade English teacher, a former script writer of some sort who had taken refuge in a rural classroom. He had a literary, almost exotic air. He once scribbled a little comment at the top of one of my essays, to the effect that I showed ability as a writer. Coming from someone from that far-off and mysterious world of New York, this came to me almost as a voice through the clouds, even though I did not act upon it directly for a long time.

My former colleague Phil was another teacher. When Phil shut himself into his cluttered office, his typewriter clacked like a freight train. (Will word processors ever evoke such images?) You could practically see the steam coming under the door. Phil’s drafts were a tangle of cross-outs and inserts, held together with staples and scotch tape. But Phil always came through. This is what separates the writers from the would-bes. By the time Phil had worked over the fifth galley proof, he had a fine piece of work.

Neil Millar used to say, “A real writer is a re-writer.’ He felt lucky lf he ended up using ten percent of a first draft. I once read that John Kenneth Galbraith often goes to ten drafts before he feels he’s gotten it right. I take great comfort in such revelations.

A writer friend once told me of a crusty old editor who used to yell at him, “Jones, you buried your lead.” I bury my leads all the time. I was born with a perverse genius for starting at the wrong place. But at least now I’m aware of it, and try to repair the damage.

Another writer friend once mentioned that he tries to reduce an article to a single sentence before he starts to write. I think of this as “Middle C.” Then there was Josh, who helped me lay out a little monthly tabloid I once edited. I can still see him merrily wielding his Exact-O knife to a precious strip of galleys at 2:OO AM, chanting his motto, “There’s no such thing as a story that can’t be cut.” I would never admit this to my editors. But Josh was right. And I can still see my former editor Charlie, pounding his table, demanding that the story have an argument, that it make a point. Charlie detested cautious and conventional thinking. He wanted to “light up the skies.” Finally, there was Bonnie, one of a small writing group that met weekly for a while. Bonnie’s poetry took intuitive leaps that made me feel like a plodder. It helped me see that prose logic is just one step on the ladder, not the top.

Any person who writes could produce a list of apprenticeships like this, and longer.

It has been my good fortune to work for two individuals –- a social crusader and a maverick editor — who have made it one of their missions in life to train young activists and journalists. At both workplaces, the more experienced help the less in like manner. Having started out in such settings, I almost instinctively fall into that role now — both roles, in fact.

I have observed that the apprenticeship ethic operates much more at small publications than big ones. Partly, it’s because people at small publications feel more responsible for the whole. At big ones, there’s the feeling that someone else will do it. Big operations with big budgets have a habitual response to problems: hire a consultant. Some large publications foster competition among their writers, so they are looking to outdo one another rather than to help. This is a shame. There’s enormous satisfaction in seeing a young writer wrestle with a story until it’s ready to be published. The thrill of seeing one’s own by-line in print, in contrast, fades pretty quickly.

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