A friend of mine, who teaches Journalism at a college some hours away from where I teach, recently invited a magazine writer to her class.
“I’m a writing whore,” the visitor declared, “I won’t write anything unless it’s for money.” She advised the students to do the same, to look for opportunities to earn twenty bucks writing restaurant reviews for Internet sites—to start from there, hoping to become high-priced whores themselves.
What a meager world that woman must live in!
To her, writing has become a thing, a product. Its meaning lies on the printed page or on the screen. The skill behind it becomes no more than the ability to put pieces together in the requisite manner—to please the “john” by meeting “his” expectations, but no more.
Writing should be much more than that—and good writing is. Writing is meant to be part of a dynamic, of a conversation. To work, it needs to do more than fulfill someone’s “requirements,” be that an employer or a pimp.
Perhaps that magazine writer had composition teachers who, like so many, teach writing as though it is no more than a thing on a page, who concentrate on form (“It must be in proper MLA format or points will come off.”) over content. Teachers who see a paragraph as a construct (“You must have a topic sentence and three supporting ones.”) rather than a part of a message chain meant to generate one of a specific range of responses.
Perhaps that magazine writer had any passion for communicating through the written word beaten out of her by instructors who sacrificed her need for conversation on the altar of precision in grammar. By teachers who would have marked Walt Whitman down for his “neither time or place” in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”
Yes, yes. Of course I know: understanding of grammar and form is essential to the success of any writer—even one who writes in dialect needs to have a full grasp of the grammar particular to it. But that needs to come after one has grasped just what the writing itself does—after one understands that a piece of writing doesn’t simply exist, that it does.
Many of us understand this from an early age, especially those of us raised in households where the written word performs as an important part of family conversation—where people read and respond to what they have read. Others, though, see writing as a mysterious jungle they are forced to hack through with little idea of direction or reason. The rules are arbitrary, the point obscure.
We might as well be teaching baseball to blindfolded, hobbled children, expecting them to gain expertise of the game through memorization of rules and measures of distance. Only when they have proven “competence” in these would we release their eyes and their feet—but we would also be expecting them to now play at an all-star level.
When they stumbled around as ineptly as even a child who had never learned the rules, we would chastise them and bemoan the state of baseball today.
Across the way, on another field, a coach is letting the children play. Having passed out bats, gloves, and a ball, she has let the kids fool around, watching and pointing things out, but not yet trying to impose structure. Later, she will take them to watch a game played by skilled teams, explaining what is going on as the innings progress.
When it comes to a game of their own, her team will perform much better than those who learned all the rules before setting foot on a diamond.
The same is true of writing, yet many teach it as though grammar is a base for writing instead of a means for refinement.
Adding insult to injury, such a methodology takes away love of the game and love of the writing dynamic. Even someone who finds they can develop the skills for either baseball or writing through study of rules before application will never develop the kind of love for what they are doing that another, who had jumped in for the joy of it, experiences.
Which brings us back to the “writing whore.” If she loved writing, she would write. If she loved writing, she would develop her topics on her own rather than waiting for an assignment. If she loved writing, she would stand a chance of becoming a master able to sell what she produced. If she loved writing, she would have a chance of becoming really good at it rather than simply adequate for fulfilling the tasks set by another.
Me, I write whether I am paid or not. If something I compose does bring me a little cash, I don’t complain—but neither do I mind the file cases full (or they would be, if I saved things) of work that never earned a penny—much of it unread by anyone but me. Maybe I never will manage to sell what I write regularly or easily (not many of us do). But I will continue to enjoy what I do rather than seeing it solely as a task. And maybe I will be able to imbue my students with an attitude towards their own writing that will allow them to use the medium of the written word to partake in their own great conversations.
Though I may end up poorer than the prostitute, I'll bet that I--and all my writing partners (students, colleagues, and others)--will enjoy the process in ways the whore, for all her skills, can't even imagine.