Monday, September 25, 2006

Surviving writing

IN 18 years of teaching, I covet every chance to teach writing.

Even to my ears, that statement is starkly insane.

Writing is almost always required in college. Not only will a semester’s course in journalism assure you of at least 30 students. Most likely, these are 30 individuals conscripted again into taking a subject they probably associate with dark, bitter memories of a kindergarten Nazi forcing their fingers around a pencil.

Although I can by now accurately fix the toll of red pens every semester exacts for correcting manuscripts (answer: three), I still feel like a privileged Earthling who has landed in some planet with three moons and discovered life exists, though it may be so different from what is known.

Where I see interviews as a chance to approach a subject as an outsider in order to later write about it like an insider, my students see fieldwork as mined with disasters: from watchdog-receptionists that see a class uprising lurking in the students’ uncombed hair to sources that lose humor because the interviewer has forgotten a detail like the first question.

While solitude and the dictionary keep me company during the long labor that is writing, my students, straggling in for a 7:30 AM deadline, compare eye bags like jaded survivors.

They moan how looking for a way to begin the article has turned their complexions yellow, how trying to end it has caused portions of their faces to cave in. Writing, concludes those who outlast the quest for the right verb, is an express lane to ugly, lonely solitude.

Going through first drafts, I think I would embrace, even sleep with such unspeakable horror—anything other than the colorless, lifeless specimen first-time writers deposit on my desk, not to be massaged back to life but autopsied for cause of death.

It is amazing how a first draft can be so devoid—no, drained—of any sign of life when its creator is just seats away from me, articulately expounding on a theory of Writing, the New Celibacy or discussing the fine points of a home-movie tentatively titled, The Eye Bags That Swallowed the College Sophomore.

Fortunately for the future of college courses on writing, there is always the second draft. And the third, and the fourth…

Eighteen years of teaching writing. I look forward to more. My students have survived me. I have not yet been murdered.

And the writing? It is as good as ever, thriving in pockets despite life-threatening spelling and alien idioms.

( or 09173226131)

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