If you can imagine this, I was the kind of teenage boy who draws a lot of his self-image from his Extracurricular Or Hobby, which in my case was a writing workshop that I went to every Friday at a youth center in Ann Arbor. By my junior year in high school I was lost—I was facilitating discussion, organizing sparsely-attended readings and neglecting my schoolwork so that I could be part of the bizarre, self-selecting little community of teenagers who wrote short stories.
It wasn’t slam poetry, a genre whose sexy heroes we looked at with petty, pimply resentment, and it wasn’t the kind of storm-and-stress poetry that teenagers write when they’ve just discovered Dylan Thomas either. NaNoWriMo aside, there isn’t much of a fiction subculture in high school, so our cadre was about as fragmented as a group can get. It was a soup of science fiction, thinly-veiled confessions and trendy magical realism, varying widely in length, maturity and quality, and the only unifying element was our advisor, a grizzled writing teacher who had gone through the University of Michigan writing MFA program and come away with the requisite obsession with prose.
So we would run our work by each other and trade typical workshop platitudes (this character isn’t sympathetic, the plot isn’t clear here, and other complaints that you make when you have absolutely nothing to contribute) and then our advisor would lean back in his chair and crucify us, in finely-tuned critical language that was at least as terrifying as its content, for bland metaphors and aesthetic cowardice. He was always friendly about it—he’d often bring his daughters in and they would watch Superfriends in the next room—but that almost made it worse. If somebody is cruel, then you learn to hate what they’re saying, but if they’re gentle then you start to envy it.
Which is to say that I, and I think a lot of other people in his workshop, finished high school with a pathological obsession with prose. Language, viewed from his perspective, was an infinitely pliable substance, a medium with no substance or shape, presenting infinite possible purposes, that we were somehow expected to sculpt into lucid, evocative, rhythmic structures. It was about figuring out what we wanted to say—which was already next to impossible—and then composing something that would realize that voice as precisely as possible, and he had no qualms about telling us that we were being dishonest with ourselves, that we were doing our stories a disservice, that we should cut out entire pages or reorder them completely. There was a right way to say everything, and we had to dredge that perfect, evocative gem out of the sludge of everyday English.
Since then I’ve gotten lazy—I tell myself that the Right Word is a myth in order to excuse myself for sloppy clauses—and I’ve heard a lot of people attack writing workshops, say they produce nothing of lasting value, just rote repetition, and there’s something to that argument despite the fact that its advocates are inevitably boring, arrogant reactionaries, not to mention mediocre writers themselves. Still, the anxious fixation on my own prose hasn’t gone away, even though sometimes it feels like Carleton has done its best to beat it out of me.
No Child Left Behind is a foul regime to work under for everybody involved except, I assume, the bureaucrats, and there’s no end to the things it can ruin, but I’d argue that one of its most hapless victims has been writing. When the only place you think seriously about your writing is in SAT prep, you learn a style of writing that will help you for four hours and ten minutes; it’s an unbelievably narrow range of skills that mostly involves judging how long it will take you to write six or seven lines by hand and then filling that space with words that sound indeterminately important, like “demonstrate” and “therefore.” It’s about learning a pre-existing vocabulary and slotting your thoughts into it, actively obliterating individual engagement with prose and replacing it with something oxymoronically called “clear communication.”
And when we get to college, that’s what A&I professors have to work with: sterile, emotionless SAT prose, occasionally spiced with advertising vocabulary if the writer is susceptible to that kind of thing. How many times do you use the word “thus” when you talk? How about “initially”? I think it’s time to give up on the idea that “academic” writing classes, even in college, are ever going to heal the SAT’s wounds—economies of scale simply won’t allow for it anymore, not now that college in general and liberal arts in particular is prerequisite for everyone in America and not just the ruling class. But if you’re not really engaged in your writing, as Orwell says, it follows that you’re not really thinking, and isn’t that at least ostensibly the liberal arts mission? Aren’t we abdicating some kind of responsibility if we don’t learn to think while we’re here?
If you’d like an economic answer, it’s yes. If you’d like something a little more drawn-out, then it’s yes, but if you’re really willing to do the work there are people in Laird who can help.