“Things We Do Not Say”

One of the things I’ve noticed about my writing students, especially the first- and second-years, is that most of them aren’t very good at detecting irony (e.g., recognizing that Joan Didion isn’t sentimentally extolling the virtues of the Central Valley in “Notes from a Native Daughter”) or spotting clichés. With respect to the latter solecism, they are quite good at noticing and fixing the crud in a sample paragraph that I give them after saying, “This excerpt has clichés in it that you should try to address.” But when it comes to their own writing, in-the-nick-of-times and unforgettable moments and in-today’s-societys start to slip in. This is a problem even for most of my brightest students, and many of the students I teach are very bright.

No doubt this has a lot to do with the fact that freshmen and sophomores are freshmen and sophomores. A few months ago I was digging through some old college papers that I’d stashed in my parents’ basement after I’d graduated, and most of those that I glanced over were awful. Just lame, pompous, hasty, Olympian nonsense that I tossed in the garbage. I used a lot of damn clichés–often high-minded ones, but still clichés that probably made my professors wince or laugh. (“Garcia Marquez’s political eco-narratives are truly moving works of art.” No, really, I wrote that and showed it to another adult.) When you are 19, you are an idiot, even if you do think of yourself as a Reader.

But most of my students don’t read much, just like most Americans don’t read much, just like many other cultures don’t read much. Now, I am skeptical of anybody who claims that there was some  golden age of mass reading (have a look at the literacy rates in Russia when Dostoevsky was alive, in Britain when Tennyson was humming, in the U.S. when James Joyce got onto the cover of Time). In any era, you can find intellectuals bemoaning the state of the public readership. However, you will have a hard time finding a high-school or college teacher who thinks that many of hir students are reading serious texts on the reg. (I’m willing to bet that stands even if you venture into Yale or Amherst or Reed or wherever. I went to a snooty school and it was true there.)

Effective writers read a lot. By getting what Martin Amis calls their daily diet of words, they continually develop an intuitive familiarity with the rhythms of the language they work in. There is no way to write well without reading voraciously. A brilliant charlatan who can’t be bothered to read other people might be able to present a surface gloss that is appealing in small doses (Helloooooo, Vice staffers), but non-readers don’t produce work that is worth reading a second time. Sorry. They don’t. You do not have to read Literature alone. But you have to read something besides status updates and threads on Reddit. You have to read stuff that has gone through the hands of editors and proofreaders. You have to know what pro text looks like.

So the plague of not-reading means that a lot of students are helpless when it comes to grasping and enjoying the textures of a good piece of writing that isn’t selling a product or a tidy idea or mere sensation. It means that many of them flail around in shallow, platitudinous thickets when they draft their own stuff.

But so many genuinely want to become better readers and writers. As a start, or one form of a start, I find that it helps to give them concrete lists of common flubs, misconceptions, and banalities, the kind that appear in any reputable style and usage guide. Students appreciate that level of editorial specificity, as well they should, because these are the kinds of crib sheets that actual writers and editors use every day.

So, from the Washington Post, there is this list of phrases and words that are verboten because they have become disgustingly bland through overuse. I know that some educational theorists think it is useless to give students a roster like this, but in the real world, the place where professional writers operate, this is one of the ways things get helped along. No, you can’t turn a whole writing class into a carnival of Helpful Lists, because perusing a list does not a writer make, but it does help to imitate the professionals who know how to remain on guard against blemishes like “tightly knit community” and “hot-button issue” and “lifestyle.” Enjoy.


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