On Writing Well: Don’t *Be* a Writer

Lilliputian Lessons
Lilliputian Lessons

In grad school I knew a young ninny who believed taking courses in technical writing would plug the gaping holes in his undergraduate academic experience and give him all the tools he needed to enjoy success in his anticipated professional life. I don’t know where he is now and I can’t say for sure whether those technical writing courses lived up to his expectations, but sitting around in a student lobby one morning I gently opined to him that coursework in English literature might serve him better. Why? he wondered. I tried to distill down my answer as best I could, but mainly, I explained, you’ll write your tail off in those classes—this is why they’re called writing-intensive courses. What do you do in literature courses? You read and read. And then you write and write about what you read. You become a better writer the more you write. And there is a depth and breadth to those writing assignments you probably won’t get in technical writing courses—you’ll have to think critically and explain yourself on paper, in a way you hope engages your reader.

In the end my suggestion was lost on him, an outcome probably as much a consequence of my flawed attempt to explain as it was his thick skull. But to this guy’s way of thinking, and to scores of others like him, taking a technical writing course was the only tincture you needed to treat the Awful Writing plague. (These were also the folks who cleaved stubbornly to the juvenile notion that undertaking coursework in anything that could not be harnessed directly for professional life was time wasted.) I submit that if you lack an understanding of the written word, or if your command of it is limited, your technical writing will reflect these deficiencies as much the rest of your writing does.

It’s a truth that should have come home to you the day your freshman English literature professor handed back your half-baked paper on Gulliver’s Travels marked up in red. If you were worth your own salt, you recognized that as a gift, all the notes he wrote diligently on the back of every double-spaced page of your pedestrian work—the missives about your over-reliance on the verb to be, your wearisome overuse of passive voice, the absence of descriptive language, but also your wordiness, and countless other missteps—all of that amounting to an essay in its own right. It was your wake-up call, if you were not a nubbin head. And there’s the rub: if you never possessed the desire to write well in the first place, it was all for naught.

That professor taught me in my early life as an undergraduate. He was an untenured newbie with a fresh-from-Columbia doctorate, now paid to stand before sleepy liberal arts majors at the University of Tennessee to try to pique our collective literary interest. Poor man; I feel sure most of us cared not one jot about his Canterbury Tales lectures or much else on the course syllabus, but were there mainly to tick another prerequisite box. The morning he recited the Prologue to us in a gorgeous, lilting cadence, though, that morning we bore witness to high art in a brutalist cinderblock classroom—Geoffrey Chaucer paid us a visit that day. This professor’s penchant for elevating the written word, and his unfaltering willingness to rip my flawed prose and then calmly explain why, kept me coming back for more. I even suffered with him through Restoration drama, a course I feel certain he was handed to teach because nobody else wanted it.

I believe this because of the King Lear incident which unfolded in an adjacent classroom one morning. Through the voice of an esteemed Shakespearian scholar, Lear had the audacity to reverberate so explosively from the room next door, the young academic before us was forced to suspend his own lecture for a few moments. He stepped back from the lectern while Lear howled on. And when the king finally fell silent, he quietly lamented to those of us who were listening, I wish I were teaching that. I heard these words fall from his lips, a tiny and rare glimpse into this man’s true demeanor, and somehow admired him more for it.

One of my favorite writers was a distinguished English professor at my alma mater, a teacher of fiction writing; he was also a friend. His uncensored wit and telling of stories were as artful and engaging as his published work. Something he once told a woman at a book signing so beautifully encapsulated the truth about writing and has stayed with me all these years. She was working on her first novel, she explained, seeking any advice he could give her—she desperately wanted to be a writer. The room collectively rolled its eyes, and I braced myself for what was coming.

Without flinching he quipped, I can’t advise you if you want to be a writer, only if you want to write.

This wisdom transcends writing to include other disciplines: don’t be a doctor, practice medicine.  Don’t be a carpenter, build things. It certainly applies to writing “subdisciplines,” if you will: don’t be a technical writer, explain things. Don’t be a marketing copy writer, influence consumers with brilliant prose. Maybe. At the very least this statement expresses its sentiment with a more active voice, with less reliance on the verb to be, after all. It emphatically describes something more akin to a heartfelt yearning.

As for the would-be Lear lecturer, I hear he holds an impressive title at the University of Tennessee these days but continues to teach. Evidently it’s wicked difficult to get a coveted spot in one of his classes; must be the Chaucer.

Postscript: A Fire in Her Belly

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Yesterday I posted about my former students at Knoxville Ballet School who worked like crazy to achieve high marks on their American Ballet Theatre Affiliate exams, and three of them who went on to attend the Young Dancer Summer Workshop at ABT in August 2012 after a successful video audition.  I wanted to share images of my kids in their last day of classes at ABT. It happened to be my birthday, and it came just before my big reboot and move to Vermont. It was a bittersweet day for me, but also the best possible way to celebrate the mid-century mark in my life. That is monkey #1 in the photo up there.

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And that is fearless monkey #2, who attended YDSW at ABT in NYC for three consecutive summers.

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And here is leggy and beautiful monkey #3.

Two weeks earlier they had attended placement classes with a couple hundred of their young colleagues. And luckily they were all placed in the same level. I think this was good for them their first time at ABT, and certainly convenient for me when I came to observe them.

When HCB and I traveled to my erstwhile home state of Tennessee last month I was able to visit with monkey #1 and her mama. I was thrilled to hear she is preparing for her first Youth America Grand Prix (classical ballet) competition, coming up in a couple of months. We talked for a long time about the rehearsal process, about her classes, and about constructive criticism.

Then recently I saw this rehearsal photo of her and obtained permission from her parents to share it. I wish all my students well, whichever paths they follow. And I wish them all a fire in their bellies.

Rehearsing Celia_1

A Fire in the Belly

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Three tired Knoxville Ballet School monkeys after a <successful> video audition for American Ballet Theatre’s Young Dancer Summer Workshop in 2012

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The same three monkeys at ABT in NYC later that summer, with their idol, one Catherine Hurlin

Last week during a discussion at a writers’ workshop I attended over in Cambridge, NY, I listened with great interest to a teacher lamenting a new generation of children whose parents are more than happy to complain to school administrators when they feel their young child’s genius is questioned by a teacher. Those are my words, not hers, but that was the gist, I think. The problem, she continued, is reaching a new pitch: last year she had been called into the principal’s office an impossible number of times to defend herself in the face of her cheeky parent critics. Nor had her comments to children been sharp or unfair. Her classroom demeanor had remained unchanged through decades, but she noted parenting attitudes emphatically had not.

So this seasoned professional decided she’d had enough.

That is a tragedy.

My mind wandered to a short video of Catherine Hurlin, a student at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre; the video was made four or five years ago, in studio 9 on ABT’s 4th floor—the very classroom where I undertook my own teacher training at ABT. In the video Catherine explains earnestly to the camera that school principal Franco De Vita could make you cry. She also nods to his humor, to which I can attest firsthand. We see her young self discussing her life at the school, alternating with moments from Franco’s studio company class into which she had been invited on occasion. This is a huge honor for a younger dancer.

I do not know of many scenarios where criticism is offered more intensely than in the ballet classroom. Not only that, once you’ve crossed the threshold from recreational study to pre-professional work (which happens for many kids by age thirteen or fourteen—Catherine was not much older than that in the video), you are about as vulnerable and exposed as it is possible to be.

Those who do not really, really want it will fall by the wayside quickly. There are too many others who do, and are more than happy to step up to the plate and take it.

Academia is different, of course. But if we are content to hand out honors like candy, how is that serving a population of children who do not deserve special recognition? The world will be less forgiving.

Earlier today I saw this thoughtful piece written by a friend who is a professional musician and music teacher. In it she opines about various aspects of feedback I completely understand. There are effective and ineffective ways to offer criticism to a young student. Being unduly harsh does not serve anybody, either.

Franco himself was pretty tough on me the first time he came to my school in Knoxville to look at my kids. After a full day of ballet exams, per the ABT/JKO rules, Franco met with me behind closed doors to critique my teaching. The kids had worked hard to prepare for their exams, but in the end I was accountable, of course. I put my head down and listened, took careful notes, silently kicked myself for some missteps I made in spite of knowing better, but realized I had so much still to learn about teaching classical ballet to a new generation of children. Franco was tired that day; he had a head cold and I imagine was possibly jetlagged. He was in no mood to suffer fools gladly, and I certainly had no intention of being a fool. I shut up and listened.

In the end, my kids did okay on their exams. A few received high marks, most were average, and a couple squeaked by. We had much work to do.

At the beginning of the next term I took my page of Franco notes into the classroom with me and kept them on the console next to my class planner. Every single class I built from that point forward reflected the wisdom he imparted to me on that Saturday in April.

All of us—my students and myself—worked so, so hard the next year; there were even a few tears, and a couple of kids threw in the towel. But when Franco visited again the following spring he was met with a very different looking bunch of young dancers.

With only a couple of exceptions, they blew the tops off their exams.

What if Franco had handed out honors like candy the first time around? How would we—my students and I—have benefitted from that?

The tenor of the ballet classroom has changed quite a bit since I was a young student in the 60s and 70s, mainly for the better: teaching methods have improved, dancer health is a much higher priority where it once was not. But even the ballet world suffers some from the “precious child” syndrome of academia, to wit: you can’t touch a kid in class, not even to make a teeny but important adjustment, for fear of legal action, or the threat of it anyway. I know about this firsthand—it was ultimately why I also left the classroom, ruled as it was at that moment by a very powerful nine-year-old kid. What a shame for all involved.

Anybody who has a real desire—a fire in the belly—to achieve anything, needs desperately to hear the truth from a loving, impassioned teacher or mentor. Undeserved accolades will ultimately extinguish the flame.

Here is the video of Catherine. Oh, and if you’d like to see what ultimately happened to her, you’ll have to go here. Thank you, Franco De Vita.