By Jeremiah O’Hagan
I’m teaching again. Since I last taught five years ago, they’ve taken to calling my subject “language arts” instead of English, which is likely more accurate. English in a U.S. school is not the study of the language, nor is it grammar, literature, writing or linguistics. It’s somehow more and less than any one of these.
Labeling it an art, however, perpetuates the misconception that literature and writing are subjective endeavors. They are not.
Contrary to what many want to believe, there are right and wrong answers in language arts. Rules do exist. Some can be broken, yes, but only because others are followed with ferocious dedication. When studying stories, I find myself telling — encouraging — my students to argue anything they want, so long as they can find proof. It’s like math, or science, I say. Test your ideas against the words. Show your work.
In writing, though, the rules have become hard for me to find, much less explain. Maybe it’s the long hours banging keys, reading essays and articles and poems and stories, studying writing myself until the patterns of letters have become a fluent second language, but I am often at a loss. And losses aren’t acceptable to teenagers. If you mark down their papers, they want to know the critical difference between a perfect score and 18/20.
I have long believed that I’m a poor teacher, but an exceptional show-er. I remember how to find things I’ve read or seen or experienced, and maybe some of them will stick to students, too.
I find myself photocopying madly 10 minutes before the bell rings to begin class. The machine whirs and spools and shuffles out copies of John McPhee, George Orwell, Joan Didion, Joe Wilkins, E.B. White, Edward Abbey and Annie Dillard. Dinty W. Moore and Scott Russell Sanders. I pass him out last.
Like everyone on the list, Sanders is a better writer than I am. He also precisely, gracefully and artfully articulates why the rules must not be broken.
“I was taught early on that a saw is not to be used apart from a square,” Sanders writes in “The Inheritance of Tools.” “There is an unspoken morality in seeking the level and the plumb. A house will stand, a table will bear weight, the sides of a box will hold together only if the joints are square and the members upright. When the bubble is lined up between two marks etched in the glass tube of a level, you have aligned yourself with the forces that hold the universe together.”
Elsewhere he writes, “I came to believe that a writer, like a carpenter, should make useful and durable things, with a respect for materials and craft, and with an eye for beauty,” and we know Sanders is not only speaking about carpentry when he talks about the morality of right angles. He is also speaking of joining words.
In a New York Times article (2001), Elmore Leonard cautioned against “adverbs, exclamation points and especially hooptedoodle,” a word first used by John Steinbeck to describe the moments writers “spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language.”
“That’s nice,” Steinbeck said. “But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”
I hand out Leonard’s piece, too, and also Kurt Vonnegut’s “How to Write with Style.” I do this because my intuitions and learning about writing have begun to reek of subjectivity, and I am trying to ground my judgments, for both my students and myself.
When Shark Reef Editor Lorna Reese and I read the prose submissions for each issue, we do so alone and without discussing them. Each of us divides the pieces into three piles: yes, no, maybe. Only then do we talk. The rules wobble in submissions in the “no” pile. These are the essays and stories that don’t bear weight because the words, sentences and paragraphs are not squared with one another. Joints are loose. Pieces are missing. Too much hooptedoodle and not enough substance. They still need to be worked into finer versions of themselves.
Likewise, those in both our “yes” piles aren’t up for debate. These pieces stand on their words and breathe something true and we can’t help but be moved.
Except, this time, our “yes” piles were tiny and overlapped only on a thin edge, and the “no” piles were smaller than ever. The “maybes” swelled.
Subjectivity exists primarily in the “maybe” pile. These are the perfectly functional and artful-enough pieces. It’s simply that some sing more or less to one or the other of us. The rules have gotten these writers to the place where, now, taste matters.
More “maybes” than ever means the people who are submitting are writing well. It means we have to think hard about why we choose what we choose. We have to pin down, at least for ourselves, the critical differences between “yes, please” and “no thank you.” We settled on nine pieces — all fiction this time. We each have our favorites. We both agree on them all.
The poetry editors have their own process and have figured out how to handle the subjectivity in their “maybe” pile. For both prose and poetry, though, Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with style are worth internalizing. He wrote them in an annotated list of bullets:
1. Find a subject you care about
2. Don’t ramble, though
3. Keep it simple
4. Have the guts to cut
5. Sound like yourself
6. Say what you mean to say
7. Pity the readers
8. For really detailed advice (And here he says to consult Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.)
After my high school students read the article, and after we discuss it, I ask them to paraphrase Vonnegut’s tips. They are as honest as scalpels. They make Vonnegut sound like he was rambling.
“Don’t be boring,” they write. “Don’t be stupid.” “Be true.”
Which, when you think about it, are the rules.
Copyright 2015 O’Hagan