Who’s Afraid of the Pen?

Everyday, millions of people in the United States write. They write grocery lists, ghazals, letters of recommendation, and office memos. Many of them, though, are hesitant to compose anything resembling “serious” writing, anything requiring ambition. They are afraid to write anything, frankly, that will be seen and/or assessed by a critical eye. Still others embrace the challenge, the potential for criticism. It is specifically this kind of writing, writing which is critically assessed, that invites a closer look. The explicative, the analytic, the academic essay is that which has the potential to engender the greatest fear or the greatest triumph in people.

What are the differences between these two kinds of writing? Between the scribbled-in Moleskine and the published blog post or op-ed? This is a question that surely can’t be answered without dozens of pages of analysis and countless hours of research. I therefore propose an amendment. In order to understand these patterns more generally, let’s look at a few examples from subjects who are in the midst of developing the opinions and habits about writing that will inform their relationship with writing for most of their adult lives: high-school freshmen.

Specifically, these students are freshmen at a magnet school in Durham, North Carolina. The school emphasizes the arts (writing among them) but is not a “true” magnet because it admits students based on a lottery system; parents apply for a spot, and the school randomly selects from the applicant pool until they reach their desired number of incoming freshmen. Because of that process, the student population has a diverse range of backgrounds, abilities and predispositions.

Over the past few months, I conducted interviews with a few of these  students. An analysis of these interviews should help us answer the following question:

  What can these writers tell us about the challenges facing high school writers working right now in Durham?

To get there, we’ll ask a few questions that will shed light on these students as individuals and on ourselves as a writing culture:

  1. What is a good writer?
  2. What does he or she look like?
  3.  What are the characteristics of his or her predispositions?

What is a good writer?

Let’s consider for a moment what it “means” or “takes” to be a good writer. Better still, let’s ask a few people who are already qualified as “good” their opinion on the matter (A note: I am entirely aware that the kinds of writing to which these authors speak are not necessarily the academic writing that I want to consider in detail. However, I think there are some very close correlations between creative narrative, dramatic, or poetic writing and academic writing. I’ll say more about that in a bit.)

T. S. Eliot: “There is no method except to be very intelligent.”

Vladimir Nabokov: “genius still means to me  fastidiousness and pride of phrase, a unique and dazzling gift. ”

 Daniel Quinn: “Most beginning writers (and I was the same) are like chefs trying to cook great dishes that they’ve never tasted themselves. How can you make a great (or even an adequate) bouillabaisse if you’ve never had any? If you don’t really understand why people read mysteries (or romances or literary novels or thrillers or whatever), then there’s no way in the world you’re going to write one that anyone wants to publish.”

C. J. Cherryh:” It is perfectly okay to write garbage–as long as you edit brilliantly.”

People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.

Harlan Ellison

Robert Southey: “By writing much, one learns to write well.”

Among these, opinions about what it takes or means to be a good writer vary greatly. Poets T.S. Eliot and Robert Southey take virtually antithetical potions.  T.S.  Eliot’s statement that a good writer needs no method “except to be very intelligent” appears to claim that in order to be a good writer, one must be a good writer. It seems nearly insultingly glib in comparison to these authors’ sentiments. Southey extols a sentiment supporting the age-old adage “practice makes perfect,” and Harlan Ellison’s statement shows that position in relation to that of “people on the outside.” Good writers do not “go up in the attic at midnight and cast down the bones” to produce work of any substantive value. Rather, they “work, and that’s all there is to it.”  Repetition, then (unless you are Eliot), is the key to success as a writer. Let’s keep these in the back of our minds; I’m sure they’ll be of some use to us in the very near future.

Peep him teaching the children. Like a G.

A good buddy of mine, Mr. Sellars, another aspiring teacher, has some insight from his own experiences as a writer and as an educator.


I interviewed Mr. Sellars, and asked him what he thought were the characteristics of a good writer. Check out his responses:

Mr. Sellars identified one key characteristic of a good writers: the student is not afraid of revision. I think he means that specifically in terms of effort, of work. He believes, as I do, that a student who is willing to do more than the bare minimum, giving time and mental energy to the task of writing will have more success.

At first glance this might seem like an obvious, nearly arbitrary point to make. But, consider: most 13-16 year-old kids want to do literally everything but attend to academic work. Even among those who have success in academics or aspire to continue their education after high school, few are fain to commit extra hours on a task as tedious as writing, and fewer still to rewriting.

“[He or she] is not afraid to revise. Not once, not twice, but as many times… until it becomes perfect.”

 Mr. Sellars

Mr. Sellers has intuited this from mere months observing students and their habits. Well, what of the expert’s perspective? What might someone who has spent scores of years thinking about, teaching, practicing writing have to say? American author Kurt Vonnegut:

 We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.

And lo, one of the  most highly esteemed writers in the American tradition shares our perspective (even if he states it more brusquely than we): “Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.” With perhaps more than a little time and the effort to support it, a student can turn bad academic writing into a successful essay.

There’s one point Mr. Sellars made that I’d like to flesh out a bit. In his comments, he mentioned that a good writer is one who “comes with clearly rough work, but is willing and ready to make revision.”  A willingness to ask for help is surely part and parcel of the overall effort required to make a successful writer, but I think it warrants distinction, particularly since our authors don’t mention it. It’s much more important for a high school freshman to acknowledge that they need, and consequently should ask for help than a “professional” writer,” who fluently navigates the conventions and stylistic maneuvers with which English prose is constructed. Many writers speak, therefore, with a certain disdain for editors and critics.

Do students think about writing in these ways? Do they consider the plausibility and/or justification for their status as “good” or “bad” writers? Well, I asked them; let’s take a look at what they think.