“You look like a god. . . Why don’t you try writing. . . “

You look like a god....

You look like a god….

When my students are learning the tedious, boring, uninteresting (how many more synonyms can I think up before I go to the thesaurus?) task of documenting their writing (you know, proper MLA format of the publication information), I have two stock bits of advice for them.

First, this is all about etiquette (which no one seems to know or care about these days), that is, politely helping your reader to find the sources for your information and ideas—if they are not common knowledge and/or you didn’t come to your conclusions on your own.

Second, this is all about rote practice. “I can teach a monkey to do this,” I say, meaning to get all of the commas and italics and periods and parentheses and so forth in the correct order according to the Word of the gods (aka, the Modern Language Association style book).

I should give them a third bit of advice, but I don’t because I warn them about plagiarism constantly and continuously.

This week is the second round of private conferences with my students for the semester. Fifty-seven 20 minute chats in my office in a week. I’m never sure if these are my favorite or least favorite days of the school year. I love the one-on-one attempts at teaching, but I am exhausted by having to seem observant, helpful, and interested (to say nothing of inspiring, which I most decidedly am not). But even more exhausting is the constant vigilance to rein in my sarcasm and disbelief. If any teacher in the world tells you he or she does not understand the last sentence, it’s a lie.

One of the most distressing (disbelief-inspiring) aspects of the task is figuring out how scrupulous to be when a student does not appear for her scheduled conference. Conferences take a week, and we do not have class during that time. My class is the only one in the university which the students cannot drop if they lag behind, and I am required to keep attendance records; therefore, missing one’s conference means accruing three of the three allowed excused absences. Bingo. The grade goes down.

I’m lying.

The most distressing aspect of the week’s work is I’m living proof that one can teach a student proper writing techniques and stellar grammar and even logical progression of ideas through an essay, but one cannot teach a student to be a writer, an artist, an effective wordsmith.

I’m not, so how can I teach anyone else to be.

But even that is not the problem. One either is or one is not a “writer.” It cannot be taught.

The scene of the crimes

The scene of the crimes

Every day (well, almost every day) when I begin to write, I have to make a decision. Am I writing simply to get it out, simply to let the demon hypergraphia have its way, or am I writing to say something logical. Most often it’s a combination of the two in which the demon hypergraphia thwarts every effort of my mind to be logical. As is happening right now, in case you are not paying attention.

This process (like the process of conferencing with individual students) is either the greatest joy of my life or the most intractable pain in my guzica.

You see, I’m a passably good teacher because I understand my students. In fact, in my arrested development, I’m more like them than any teacher ought to admit to. I’m disorganized, forgetful, and just waiting for someone to fix things for me (that is to say, fix me). (Recently I wrote about one of the more stellar moments of my college career.) I could teach myself the proper technique that one should not put two parenthetical notes back to back, but that sort of care would take—for me—the fun out of writing altogether. It’s the sort of “error” students make all the time, and it’s also the sort of thing that gives their writing whatever pizazz it might have.

The New Zealand poet James Brown wrote a how-to book (which I have ordered—I have not read it) titled Instructions for Poetry Readings (Braunias University Press) in 2005. He used the pseudonym Dr. Ernest M Bluespire (1). I’m sure he had some wonderfully inane reason for concocting that name, but I don’t know what it is.

Dr. Bluespire is important – and I know of him –because I discovered a poem by the American Pulitzer-Prize-Winning poet, James Tate (graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

So now I come to the logical point, the very reason I began this writing in the first place. It’s to share James Tate’s poem.

Teaching the Ape to Write Poems
  by James Tate

They didn’t have much trouble
teaching the ape to write poems:
first they strapped him into the chair,
then tied the pencil around his hand
(the paper had already been nailed down).
Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
and whispered into his ear:
“You look like a god sitting there.
Why don’t you try writing something?”

The inimitable Dr. Bluespire

The inimitable Dr. Bluespire

I wonder if I am inadvertently playing the role of Dr. Bluespire and trying the impossible, that is, trying to inspire writing from students who can possibly learn the rules, but never produce “real” writing.

The reality is more likely the reverse. I’ve had inspiring and helpful teachers, in high school, in college, in graduate school (learning to write in proper musicological style), and again in graduate school—the challenging fiction writing workshops under Robert Nelsen (now President of a campus of the University of Texas). And along the way, I learned—disgustingly thoroughly—to use proper MLA documentation style if nothing else.

But being told I look like a god (who are they kidding) so I should try writing something is not—obviously, painfully, undeniably—going to accomplish much.

On the other hand, this is the most fun I will have all day, so who cares if it’s real “writing?”
(1) “James Brown.” Creative Giants of Palmerston North, New Zealand.  creativegiants.co.nz. 2013. Web. 7 Nov. 2013.
(2) “James Tate.” The American Academy of Poets. poets.org. 1997-2013. Web. 7 Nov. 2013. (1)

One Response to “You look like a god. . . Why don’t you try writing. . . “

  1. Pingback: ‘ . . . you float free into a cloud of sudden azaleas. . . ‘ -or amaryllis- | Me, senescent

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