Tuesday, February 3, 2009

the writer at gunpoint

I enjoy the time between classes, when one group of students are filing out and another are filing in, especially when I have back-to-back classes in the same room. It gives me a chance to casually chat, answer their questions, and/or gauge what kind of energy level I'm going to be up against. Today, because the first class ended slightly earlier than usual, I had extra time to chat w/ a couple of students.

"Great reading," said a student in regards to the excerpt I assigned from Stephen King's On Writing ("Toolbox"). "I read it three times!"

You have no idea the kind of happy dance I wanna do when a student tells me he willingly, enthusiastically read an assigned text more than once.

"Isn't it great?" I gushed. We then proceeded to have our own little discussion about the text.

"What got to me was King's discussion about fear being at the root of bad writing. He's so right. I can see it in my own writing, when I have a paper due and I don't know what the hell I'm doing. My writing sucks."
"Of course!" I replied. "It happens to me, too!"

And so the conversation went-- the more they talked, the more juiced I became. And then another student chimed in: "It's like being held at gunpoint," he said.
"Oh yeah," said the other, "and you're constantly staring down the barrel."

What a metaphor! And I couldn't agree more w/ them, in the context of being a student writer challenged to write at this academic level full of abstractions and complexities, writing for an audience who invaribly knows more than they do. The teacher is often the one packing heat, at least as seen from the doe-eyed student.

And so I invited them to unburden their fears: fear of not being understood; fear the teacher won't like their style; fear of failing; fear of getting it wrong; fear of not getting it at all; etc. It's a tremendous opportunity to be reminded of what they go through, and King helps me disarm myself as teacher (as judge) as well give them a bit of armour to wear -- or, the tools to deflect the bullet -- when facing the barrel of the gun. There's a way out of this, I say to them. There's language. There's choice. There's grammar as a means of clarity vs. correctness.

There's hope.

And is this the appropriate metaphor for us more seasoned writers? Are we held at gunpoint by our readers, agents, editors, and critics? Are we pointing the gun at ourselves?

It's hard for me to apply so violent a metaphor to myself (the pacifist in me can't take it), but lord knows I get the fear.

And I hope my students know I'm just like them as a result.

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