One of the many bafflements of my college years was the discovery that the English faculty had little interest in teaching students how to write well.
Sure, they would present the basics in a remedial composition class for freshmen who hadn’t learned what they were supposed to in high school. Beyond that, though, the writing classes didn’t involve teaching so much as so much as supervised trial and error. Each of us in the class would write something, and everyone else would render an opinion of what worked and what didn’t.
It didn’t take long to realize that the students critiquing my work were no more experts in writing than I was. Many were more talented, but they couldn’t explain what they were doing or why it worked. Unfortunately, the professors did little to shed light on the subject. Mostly they beamed at the talented ones, sighed at the rest of us and wistfully thought of places they’d rather be than in the classroom.
The one exception was Will Baker. He was a working writer, willing to tackle a variety of genres from science fiction to mysteries to essays on Peruvian tribal life. He also drew on a varied background, including stints as an ironworker and a farm laborer. Oh, and he was a student at the Sorbonne for a time.
In the classroom, Baker wanted us to roll up our sleeves and get familiar with the tools of good writing. For example, he might start out by asking us to write a story. It didn’t matter if it was fiction or nonfiction. Then he’d have us tell the same story entirely in dialogue. Then he’d have us write it again, this time with no dialogue at all. Then he’d have us write it again as a first-person narrative.
Working through these drills, we learned the advantages and disadvantages of the various tools at our disposal, and how to employ them effectively.
Today, when a piece of writing isn’t coming together well, I’ll bring some of those drills out of mothballs. If I’ve been quoting someone I’ve interviewed, I might try it again with no quotes at all. If I’ve been telling a story chronologically, I might try starting with the result and work backward.
Sometimes the results turn out even worse than what I started with. But the exercise forces me to look at the material in a different way, and how it might be shaped by different tools. Often that’s enough to point me in a better direction.
By the way, when Baker made an assignment, he also completed it himself. Sure, he probably used the same material year after year. But he showed that he could walk the walk.