Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Build for It

Jonathan has raised two related issues this week: one about the idea of a "natural talent" for writing and one about your image of yourself as a writer. The first post, especially, reminded me of a passage in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. It's the scene where Holden Caulfield's roommate, Stradlater, asks him to write his English composition for him. He'd be free to write anything he wanted, "just as a long as it's descriptive as hell", and just as long as he doesn't put commas all in the right places because that would be a dead giveaway that Stradlater hadn't done the assignment himself.

That’s something else that gives me a royal pain. I mean if you’re good at writing compositions and somebody starts talking about commas. Stradlater was always doing that. He wanted you to think that the only reason he was lousy at writing compositions was because he stuck all the commas in the wrong place. He was a little bit like Ackley, that way. I once sat next to Ackley at this basketball game. We had a terrific guy on the team, Howie Coyle, that could sink them from the middle of the floor, without even touching the backboard or anything. Ackley kept saying, the whole goddam game, that Coyle had a perfect build for basketball. God, how I hate that stuff.

Stradlater doesn't know what it takes to be a good writer, just as a Ackley doesn't know what makes a good basketball player. It's not, of course, that your build or where you put the commas is completely unimportant, it's just that by reducing the question to these things, we miss the essential thing: practice. Writers gain mastery of the craft by continuous practice. They may start with some natural disposition to become writers, but they have to develop that talent in the usual way.

Caulfield hates the way Stradlater and Ackley talk about the talent of others because it's a way of trivializing it. It is a way of not really being impressed. (It's also represented by Stradlater's yawn while he asks Caulfield for this favor. Stradlater is saying that Caulfield should do it for him because, for reasons entirely beyond their combined control, Caulfield can write and Stradlater cannot. From each according to his ability, we might say, to each according to their need.) And if you're not really impressed by people who can write—if you don't appreciate their efforts to develop their talent—then you're not going to make an effort to emulate them in your own writing. You won't look to them as models.

When I teach writing, I try not to introduce rules and criteria. Instead, I introduce forms. That is, I try to show writers what the different parts of a paper are for, and then I tell them to practice getting their sentences to work together to accomplish those goals. (I give them the that/which distinction not as a rule of grammar but as a way of deciding whether you are restricting the meaning of a term or not.) I also normally always give students something that they'll learn (only) by doing for twenty minutes or half an hour. One of the problems with an image of a oneself as a non-writer grounded in the belief that one "doesn't know where the commas go" is that it suggests that your writing is held back by a lack of knowledge about writing. It's usually not. It's held back by a lack of writing. The relevant "build" emerges from your training.


Tanya Golash-Boza said...

Very well said ==> "They may start with some natural disposition to become writers, but they have to develop that talent in the usual way." Great post.

Andrew Shields said...

I agree that writing should not be reduced to "knowing about commas" and the like, but at the same time, a writer who does not understand how to use commas -- especially an academic writer who doesn't -- is going to have trouble *writing* those good claims and paragraphs you call for. Maybe not *producing* them in speech, though?