Teaching and Writing

I’m tired today, so tired that I can barely put two sentences together. In a way that makes sense, that does not seem completely random, I mean. Which is, of course, a skill I teach my students: I call it flow. To make sentences flow, you pick up a bit of what you said in the last sentence and then add something new to it. I would say it’s like doing a chain stitch, but most of them have no idea what a chain stitch is.

Tomorrow is the last day of the semester. I get like this toward the end of the semester, when there’s so much work to do that I’m not getting much sleep. Today I held office hours for four extra hours, just in case any of my students needed help with their final papers. I’m not giving them any excuses: if a paper doesn’t work, it’s not because I wasn’t available to tell them why. Teaching takes energy and dedication and a judicious use of similes.

(At the beginning of the semester, I tell my students that writing is a system of black squiggles that we use to conveying meaning.  In other words, writing is itself, ab initio, an insane enterprise. And we go on from there.)

But what I really wanted to write about was how teaching has affected my writing. Those of you who are teachers may be able to relate to my experience.

I spend hours and hours every semester correcting student writing. I have been trained to do it, I have also trained myself a great deal. In order to do it well, I have to know all the rules, why commas go where they go, why a paragraph lacks unity, why a sentence does not make sense. (“What is your sentence about?” I ask. “Well, is that also the grammatical subject? If not, why not?”) Teaching writing has taught me so much about writing. Perhaps what teaches me most, however, is seeing the terrific paper, the automatic, don’t-have-to-think-about-it A paper. With apologies to Tolstoy, all A papers are A papers in their own way. They don’t just lack mistakes. They have something extraordinary about them, a level of engagement with the texts, a felicitous style. They grab and keep your attention, and it’s interesting to think about what does that. Usually, I think, it’s the student’s voice. The student already has an individual voice. The student is already thinking, and writing, in his or her own way. There’s an enormous pleasure in seeing something like that.

I wouldn’t be the writer I am, if I weren’t the teacher I am, I think. I wouldn’t construct sentences the way I do, I wouldn’t think so often about technique or have a certain facility with it. I wouldn’t be able to write in so many genres, poetry and short story and essay.

At the end of the semester, when all I want to do is sleep, it’s useful to remind myself of this.

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