Your theory of writing

People of a more practical bent will sometimes suggest they don’t have a theory. Others argue that theory is a distraction or isn’t important.

Those positions (each a caricature in itself) hold a view of theory that arises from a reaction to the overly academic approach we take to writing. The great temptation for any teacher or school is to isolate what happens in the school or classroom from the rest of life and then to exalt it over things outside the school or classroom.

When schools do that, people outside the schools can overreact the other way and deny the importance of what happens in the school. And to the extent that the school overvalued itself, the anti-school people will be right.

The only value of education is what it actually accomplishes in the soul and for the life of the student.

All of which is preamble to indicate the unnecessary tension between theory and practice that I pointed to in my previous post.

My thesis here is simple: since, as we have perhaps already established, we all have a writing theory, that theory forms our expectations and practices as writers and teachers. 

The cosequence of my thesis is that the theory we hold, therefore, effects the quality of our instruction and the degree of our mastery of the art.

For example, if a student thinks that writing is a great mystery, a gift descending from the gods, he will practice accordingly. He may pray a lot if he wants to write well, but he won’t try to exercise a discipline he doesn’t believe exists.

Put in that caricature, that position might seem absurd, but that caricature expresses rather nicely the unconscious presupposition I held as a high school student. It’s easy to see why, because to this day the achievements of the great poets leave me breathless and, to be perfectly honest, often envious.

How was Shakespeare able to write the way he did? How could Chaucer so continually throw out lines with such grace and subtlety? How could John Donne hide so many, many layers of meaning in the 14 lines of a sonnet.

It’s no wonder that Homer begins his epics with the words “Sing goddess…” and Milton, “Sing heavenly muse.”

And both were, I’m certain, quite genuine in their appeal. Their theory of poetry led them to call for divine help.

So does mine.

Shakespeare seems not to have held such a theory. He was, one might say, a more secular poet, certainly than Homer or Milton, if not Virgil (Arms and the man I sing).

Behind those prayers lay a theology and a cosmology and an anthropology that inform every line of the poets’ work.

The absence of such lines in contemporary poetry indicate a different theology, cosmology, and anthropology.

When a person writes, he comes to the task with beliefs about how important writing is, the source of the power to do it, and how one practices it. Writing workshops and classes are not the place to teach such things. They already embody them in their modes and structures.

For example, the typical school class assumes that writing is taught by a text book through exercises and that pretty well anybody can teach it with the right text book. Administrative structures and assessment expectations pretty well demand this theory, if it isn’t in place ahead of time.

What I mean is that, given how we run our schools and hold them accountable, we need to believe that writing, like everything else in school, simply needs to be administered to the student in the right dosage. Then a standardized test can take our temperature – it can tell us whether we succeeded.

A workshop, on the other hand, will recognize the need for judgment and direct feedback.

At CiRCE, for example, we believe that writing can be learned only through an apprenticeship. Writing is a craft, and a craft can only be learned through coaching by a master. That is why we put so much emphasis on the need for the teacher to understand the ideas taught in our Lost Tools of Writing program.

Writing, like every art, requires judgment. That is why people often say, “There are no rules.”

They are almost right. The one rule is propriety. This directs the teacher’s and students’ attention away from rules to purpose and nature, because propriety is determined by the nature and the purpose of the act, the actor, and the other participants in the act.

And propriety requires judgment.

And judgment takes awareness of principles, understanding of the nature of the act, process, and artifact, knowledge of the thing represented in the writing, wisdom, and clarity of purpose.

Writing needs to be taught practically – it’s a craft.

And you can never develop the judgment writing requires if you don’t thoroughly understand the rules of normal writing.

Practical writing, therefore, is always taught within a theoretical framework, a paradigm if you like. The failure to teach children spelling, grammar, and usage in the contemporary school arises from a theory of human nature, of education, and of writing that undercuts all three, as reflected in the growing inability and unwillingness of the people to communicate with any care or depth over the past few generations.

So to become a great writer or to help your students become one, you’ll want to do what you can to clarify your theory. The good news is that that clarification begins with common sense observations.

More good news: there are plenty of sources available to develop your theory of writing in dialogue with others. But be careful. If you read what other people say, you might not be looking at what writers do and how children learn. The value of what others say comes in the rather obvious fact that they’ll see things you can’t see and if they’ve written something it almost certainly has been thought about for a while. But if the theory is bad, the thought will only make it worse.

Some sources:

  • Aristotle: Poetics (short read, worth reading a lot over the years. This still drives most movie writing)
  • Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Read his comments to the players in Acts 2 and 3 (if my memory is on)
  • Wendell Berry: Standing By Words (simply incredible)
  • Anything about theory by Ezra Pound. Watch out for his politics.
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biologia Literaria (probably the hardest of these to read – don’t start with this)
  • Louis Markos, Teaching Company series on the History of literary criticism. Very nice introduction to theories over time, (though I think he misunderstood Plato’s point in the Republic).

I’ll leave it there for now. Those will do for one or two lifetimes anyway.

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4 Responses

  1. Is the Markos course to which you refer “Plato to Postmodernism”?

  2. “For example, the typical school class assumes that writing is taught by a text book through exercises and that pretty well anybody can teach it with the right text book. Administrative structures and assessment expectations pretty well demand this theory, if it isn’t in place ahead of time.”

    This approach you mention above seems to me to be prescriptive in nature. The patient is ill, requires a pill and with just the right medicine the patient will improve. How like our culture to live fast, eat fast, and expect fast results.

    I would posit that writing is more dietary and lifestyle oriented. The person needs nourishment, a soul feeding diet, not a pill. Proper nourishment takes time, thought, and as you said judgment in what makes a good nutritious meal. Writing, too.

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