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Archive for Sunday, August 7, 2005

Martin: Truths behind tone, word choice guide writing success

August 7, 2005

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I had no business teaching freshman English at Kansas University in the 1970s. Not really. Teaching the young to choose words and construct sentences that affect hearts and minds is work for masters, not apprentices.

Of course it's not unusual for the young to teach the young how to write, and it's rarely fatal. In some ways it's even OK. Masterful writing doesn't ultimately derive from masterful teaching. It comes of spending years putting words on paper.

What got me thinking about this was an essay by Frank Farmer, KU associate professor of English.

The essay's about Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher of language who fell out of favor under Stalin and for a brief time taught writing to Russian high school students.

In an article in the July issue of the journal Written Communications, Farmer comments on an essay by Bakhtin about the teaching of writing. Among other things, Farmer summarizes what Bakhtin might have advised about writing.

First, Bakhtin might have told his students that it's important to bring everyday language into writing. Indeed, a lot of great writing is marbled with such language - and a lot of mediocre writing strains to sound anything but common. It reaches for a tone of high seriousness and comes off instead as pompous.

Second, Bakhtin thinks it's important for students to read good literary writing so that they can blend some of its features with everyday language in the search for a personal voice. I remember, for example, being influenced at different stages both by the overheated prose of Norman Mailer and the chilly distance of George Will. Writers need tapes in their heads of many different prose voices. You get those by reading.

Third, Bakhtin thinks it's important for students to read aloud, and even "perform" the words they put down on the page. Back in the early '70s, I advised first-year students to read their essays aloud in a mocking way. I'd say, "Read what you've written as if your essay has fallen into the hands of somebody who means to make fun of you." Doing that, you hear every false note.

The upshot is that writing is difficult work, says Bud Hirsch, coordinator of undergraduate studies for the KU English department, but also incredibly satisfying.

And that's true so long as you're ready to take the hit to your ego.

I'm not just talking about rejection letters. The essayist Phil Lopate once told me that the style of a group of essays I was writing was too thin. He wanted me to write more complex prose. He wanted me to move beyond the glibness that comes easily to journalists if they stop thinking.

As I rewrote the book, I learned that Lopate wasn't just asking me to change my style. He was asking me to undertake a deeper and knottier consideration of the topics I was writing about and, as I wrote, to bring that complexity to the page.

People believe that we are supposed to think, then write. But British writer E.M. Forster spoke the truth - my truth, anyway - in saying, "How can I know what I think till I see what I say?"

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