To slightly misquote William Zinsser’s seminal work On Writing Well, “Writing can’t be taught, but it can be learned.” I’ll add that writing isn’t a thing one does occasionally or half-heartedly, that it’s more about priorities than punctuation. It isn’t even a thing one does, like a semi-colon or comma, but what one is, like a period. It is not an interruption in our daily processes, but part of a bigger process that involves both world and word. That probably can’t be taught either, but there’s no reason to ruin the slim chance I have of getting this job I so desperately need, so I’ll just say that the object of my philosophy is to assay, or attempt, as that old Frenchman wrote some centuries ago.
The only real way to learn all this, of course, is to write, to live a number of years that differs for everyone, but always needs to be lived—years of bad apartments and no money, staring at computer screens until your eyes hurt and your back feels as broken as the last few years of your life. Years of pounding at a keyboard or massaging your cramped hand where you sit with your feet curled beneath you, yellow pad on the arm of the overstuffed chair, biting your bottom lip for hours until finally one sentence falls into place and you smile briefly before beginning the next one, which will take almost as long to write as it did to admit you might want to write in the first place, or that you may not be a good father because of all the time you spend writing. Then will come years of taking yourself too seriously, followed by more of not taking yourself seriously enough, but most classes cover only one semester, so we’ll just have to hope all that sinks in somewhere, or that students understand it sometime later: in another city, on a snowy sidewalk, or in the middle of sex.
I don’t believe in exercises. I don’t ask students to describe an egg without using the words white, or oval, or shell, although I might ask them what eggs look like broken on the floor after a fight with your wife in the kitchen, the way the yolks sit encapsulated in the albumen, which is the white part, like eyes rolling back beneath the lids when you’ve had too much to drink later that night remembering the way she put her head in the palms of her hands after your harsh words. I might ask students to describe the way light bends in a wine glass or why shadows seem larger when you write alone late at night. I might ask for exercises on forgiveness, because that’s one of the things I believe all writers are looking for, along with the feeling that you are not alone in your sorrows.
And since reading is fundamental to writing, students in my course will read any number of essays, though said number will depend on the weather, how late the library stays open, how many other assignments or assignations they have committed to, how often they can drag themselves away from the world and open themselves up to the word. This is not an easy thing to do. Some days I’d rather drink a bottle of vodka than write about my years in the military or the hospital scare we had when my daughter was a year old. Some nights I do exactly that, sitting at my computer trying to distract myself with YouTube videos and vodka-tonics, or staring at the TV screen or some other thing that screens me from difficult emotions, from trying to describe in detail how hot a rifle range is in summer with bombs exploding in the distance or how scared you can be when your daughter is slid unconscious into an MRI.
We will also read what is written on the walls of the bathroom stalls in the truck stop along I-85, where it swoops in close enough to the college that students see it as a conduit that can take them anywhere they want to go, but which only reminds me of the time I left my wife and daughter to drive west in search of something I couldn’t explain with words. They will read the bulletin boards outside the class advising them to learn a second language and study abroad in Italy or Istanbul, and perhaps come to understand that all places are tied together, though I will remind them that in Colorado or another country what you’ve left behind still stays with you, like a second skin irritating the one you try to show the world. They will read the back of the anti-bacterial soap dispenser, the front of the milk carton, the sides of billboards, the bottoms of their shoes, the top of the refrigerator, or any place they never look to see what words are written there, because writing is about looking into places no one else ever sees. They will collect first lines and last lines. Old quotes and new acronyms. They will make lists and longings. They will keep a file of everything that didn’t work out the way they wanted it to, and they will be surprised when this is the largest file, when they realize that failure is the thing they wrote the most, although it may be years before this revelation arrives.
For real-world work and hands-on learning, students will take solitary field trips. Walk along creek beds or through the dorms late at night and listen to the sex sounds and smell the smoke seeping beneath the doors. Stare out the window and wonder how you have ended up here, much like I did in the rented room in Colorado, the Rockies already snow-capped and winter already on the way and my heart as cold as the nights came to be. I drank too much and left long messages on her machine. Little birds blew backwards in the mountain winds. I bought wine by the box. The snow came early and deep and I knew there was something wrong with me but couldn’t find the words to fix it. Other projects of mine include revisiting the Army base I lived near as a kid and remembering how the falling bombs rattled the windowpanes, how I thought the world was always at war. Sometimes the landscape burned when bombs ignited the dry and brittle grass, much like the ruins of the European cities my grandfather saw were still smoldering days after they were destroyed.
Find your own fire, I tell students. Mine began in the first house I can remember, the one that was always cold even when the fireplace was filled, the one with all the fights and broken walls from all the fighting, where dishes sometimes careened into the corners and the sound of raised voices rattled through the holes created by the thrown crockery. In finding (or fighting) fires, you have to remember broken walls, the way the plaster crumbled at the edges. How you could see the inner workings of what separates, like your parents soon would. After the separation my mother would sit in the driveway with her head on the steering wheel of her car when she came home from work. My brother and I, watching from the window, would know she was wondering how she had ended up here, not even 30, already divorced, two small boys to take care of in a house that had grown cold.
Another fire began burning not long after I moved from that house and joined the military, just about the time forces began massing in the Middle East. This was when I finally began to listen to my grandfather’s stories of fires and forests, of rice and ruined cities in foreign countries. Go to a soup kitchen, I say, or a homeless shelter, where men less fortunate than my grandfather ended up after Korea and the Viet Cong, and are now filled with those from Iraq and Afghanistan. Go to the undersides of bridges on winter nights when the temperature drops below freezing and a hard wind comes off the river. Find the men huddled by burning barrels, their hands held out for warmth. Find a single father raising three children, a woman who lost her husband, a brother beaten and bullied on the bus, because if you cannot empathize with others then you can never write words that mean anything.
And writing must have meaning, so we will learn to shape sentences into sorrow and swords. To soothe paragraphs into some semblance of order, like the self you are also trying to shape. Writing is about seeing, and seeing is about all kinds of lenses and signals and inversions, about the way we receive images from the world and the way our brains translate those images into something we can understand. Or can’t understand, but wish to, the way I could stare at the Colorado mountains for hours and still wonder where I was, or drive now past my parents’ old house and forget how many years have gone since I was a child waking to fights in the middle of the night.
Always be writing. Carry notebooks, I tell students, hip-pocket-spiral-flip-open or leather-bound ledgers by the expensive stationery in Barnes and Noble. Stay away from coffee shops. From bars and alcohol, at least until the writing is done for the day. Write every day, I tell them. Wake before first light and write until dawn draws the world outside the window into shape. Write late at night, when everyone is asleep, so no one will see you writing about the things that move through your mind at such an hour, the darkness and depravity, the dreams and desires, the fears and hopes of fortune. Write to find your shadow, or to hide from it. Circle sentences in your favorite books and copy them down in your old purple notebook from high school. Go back and read what you wrote years ago, in a hand that no longer looks like yours. I have one of these somewhere, though I do not recall what kind of person I was to have written the things in it.
Once the writing is done, revise. Until the words lose all meaning or take on new ones. Until your nights are filled with the words you cannot get right. I often feel as if I have wandered into someone else’s story of my life. I’d like to revise until I get it right, but that only works with words and not in real life.
Keep a journal. Write the date and duration of your time declaring and disclosing, and perhaps a personal note about what you are working on, how late last night you wrote about the things you are afraid of: beginnings and endings, leaving again, failure and being a father, for both work the same way. Keep track of fear because fear drives the essay. I know this because I am afraid all the time: of never being known, of not getting this job, of war and nuclear weapons and the end of the world. Last week I wrote about my daughters growing older, how it has been years since they asked me to read to them, how they will soon go off to a college much like this one and will likely never return to live under our roof again, not counting the darkest days crowded around Christmas and the short span of summer into which we will try to cram all our together time. After I had finished writing my shaking hand hovered over the delete button for a long time until I was sure I wasn’t going to cry. Hemingway said writing is bleeding on the page, but I’ve always thought tears a better test. Find a cramped corner in the late library and let them fall.
Speaking of cramped corners, writing space is essential to the beginning student writer, or the one like me, middle-aged now though I still feel as stupid as I did at 18. Find an overstuffed chair and write in the light of a floor lamp until your hands are stained with blue felt ink. Until the wine bottle is so low you have to hold it to the light to see how much is left, then empty it into your gullet there in front of the refrigerator. Use words like gullet. Know that writing is about moments of light, whether from the floor lamp you bought at the thrift store that’s half held together by duct tape, or the light of the almost empty refrigerator falling at your feet. Inspect the quality of the light coming in the bedroom window when you wake after that bottle of wine. Write it down, then sleep for another hour, depending on how bright the light is, how long before you have to crawl from bed and venture out into a sun that seems too strong for the fragile bodies we inhabit.
Write despite your fragile body. At your laptop late at night and early in the morning. Don’t answer the phone when friends or family call, especially your father, who might tell you of a job he thinks you should take, meaning he’s worried about the money you aren’t making. Tell him you’re applying for this job instead, one that will take you farther away from where you grew up because to go back would seem like defeat, to see again the streets you keep writing about, the old house with its chronic angers and cold woodstove mornings, the little house on Ivy Street where you first lived with and then left your wife who somehow still loves you.
Keep writing after college, on the way to work, structuring sentences as the mileposts switch past on the Interstate at 8 am. Write during your cigarette break, your lunch, whatever it is that passes for pause in your working world. Rely heavily on these bits and pieces of prose to get you through the day. Keep thinking the call will come from an agent or editor, even when you know it never will. Know that writing it not a thing to do, but a way to be.
This is knowing the difference between fact and fiction. Between summary and scene, how communication or lack thereof develops character. You can only describe the shadow of the mountains so many times, can only explain how empty of character you felt at that time of your life, how you were trying to fill up the holes with words. For many students, this will be an abstraction, one only captured with the concrete, when they’ve lived it sometime later, left their house to drive to the hills in the last light.
Other abstractions students may come to know are how both the head and the heart hurt after a long night of evaluating essays or trying to write your own, or the twists and turns you have taken to get to where you are—middle-aged, needing a new job, making less money than the cost of the college that you call your career. Still others are how the ring of the phone sounds different late at night when the grandfather you dearly loved has died. How the injured kitten cried before you killed it, or your dog raised its sad eyes toward you in its last breath before it dragged itself off to die. How headlights swept the wall late at night while your parents argued in the other room, their shadows like monsters coming down the hall. How clean a newborn child smells after a bath, how her cry sounds like a creaky door swinging open, how her blonde hair will disappear when it gets wet.
Students will learn to dredge up the past, to recall old stories told to them on cold nights of dark forests just before Bastogne and Berlin finally fell. They must read old letters, dig deep into boxes of photographs to find the ones turning yellow at the edges, the ones only the oldest family members can recall. Who is this? and this here? and this one? they have to ask, along with Where was that? and How old were you? and Why have you never told me this before? My daughter is now old enough to ask me why I left when she was young, and I must be able to tell her it was the words, that writing was the only thing in the world that could save me from myself.
We have to know where we came from to know where we are going. I’ve supplied my background here. Not the degrees and workshops, not the classes taken nor conferences attended—those are academic, a precursor, if you will, to what happens next. The real development is all the things I’ve included—the long hours, the wasted words, the failure. It’s a solitary existence sometimes, like my office late at night when the lights are coming on along the campus walkways creating shadows whose voices I can hardly hear, and the organ in the auditorium is howling out some baroque image while I’m waiting for a student who will never show up.
This is what students must learn. They must show up. Search through their own sorrows and sadness, their own trials and triumphs. To follow their fears and failures to find the fire. I can’t teach that. Maybe it can be figured out, although there isn’t enough time in a semester or a life to learn all the things we need to know.