Even Poorer in Thanks

Still immersed in final preparation of LTW II so it’s been very hard to write on here. Camille Goldston called me this morning to see how I was doing  and whether there was anything I needed her to do.

It’s amazing how much work she has put into this project over the last couple years – and into studying and teaching the Lost Tools of Writing before that.

Camille has told me that she didn’t like writing before she got involved with this, and there are times when I’m sure I’ve made her like it even less. Yet she outlined and created the great bulk of the level II teacher’s guide and then subjected it to review by others, especially Dr. Timothy Diebler from Covenant Academy in Houston, TX.

That takes some courage.

Camille has written, modified, and edited module guides and worksheets, she has found others to help with various parts of the project and guided them in their roles, she has given me feedback on most of the things I’ve worked on directly.

When I review what Camille (and Leah) have worked on, and then I remember that another dozen people have been involved in this task, I ask myself what exactly I have done.

The only thing I can come up with is my normal role ever since school days: to create confusion and chaos for the people who are trying to be productive.

I hope that you will all get your hands on LTW II because it really is going to be the best upper school writing program for the teacher who wants to teach students how to think and who values practical communication skills that grow from clear and creative thinking.

And I hope that when you get the program you will drop Camille a line to thank her for the innumerable hours of work she has given to classical rhetoric, from her four years in the apprenticeship to teaching level I (including on-line with Memoria Press – see our website for details on that), to the last two years of showing constant initiative to complete level II and work through some really tough spots even when I felt like quitting.

It’s personal. I’m indebted to Camille for her work and for her encouragement. But I can’t thank her enough. Can you help me?

Nowhere Near the Honor Due

Perhaps you have noticed by now that level II of The Lost Tools of Writing will be released to the Cosmos on April 19. If I were to start publicly thanking everybody who had a role to play in the development of this work, I’d be posting for a long time. If I proceeded to enumerate all the reasons they deserve thanks, I’d never stop writing.

My invention knows no limits, not because of any genius on my part, but because of the reach of the work done.

I can begin with the topic of definition, asking the question, “Who is it?” And that leads to a list of names that fills a phone book. For example, the two superstars of LTW II are Leah Lutz and Camille Goldston.

First they studied both classical instruction and classical rhetoric for three and four years as CiRCE Apprentices. No, that wasn’t first. Both had already been teaching for years before they joined the Apprenticeship, and what a lot they had to add when they joined.

This year I can think of many things each of them did, but would shame myself and undercut them if I tried to enumerate them all. Let me, instead, present some types and reveal some kinds.

Leah pretty much oversaw the development of the worksheets and module guides for the past two years. Perhaps you know the old bromide about not wanting to see how a sausage or a law is made. That may be, but if you had watched how LTW was made, you’d have a very different feeling. Leah has an amazing mind for ordering disparate and confusing things.

She kept us all on track without once losing her temper. She gave her time sacrificially to collect and review drafts and either revise them or make suggestions for revision by the writers (of whom more later). When difficult issues needed clarification, her input and questions were always insightful, appropriate, and productive. She wrote plenty of the materials herself, first as an apprentice and then as a developer.

If you remember the first edition of The Lost Tools of Writing, Level One, (which you probably don’t since it was so much less perfect than I had credited it with being!), you will appreciate the leaps, the bounds, the works of supererogation that have been accomplished when you see Level Two. And Leah was the ordering mind behind much of the improvement.

Leah, allow me here to publicly express my gratitude for your amazing work. The world will receive your work with great joy, beginning on April 19.

Because of you, LTW II will be clearer, full of better examples, easier to use, more thorough, more effective, and easier to understand than any other writing program available – even, for now, than LTW I. In fact, because of you, LTW I has been and will continue to be improved in many ways.

As you put it in an E-mail, “The end is in sight!! And it looks like a pretty great end.”

Friends, make no mistake, for the last 125 years our approach to teaching children has undercut their ability to think and to communicate. We are living in the early years of a dark age. Unless a light can be shined on how to think and communicate.

While the classically educated in time past would not think a whole lot of what we are doing now, they would appreciate that we are doing something. A genuine renewal is possible, but only if each teacher devotes herself to teaching the child in front of her instead of trying to save the world all at once.

The Lost Tools of Writing fancies itself a tool box for such a teacher: one who wants to learn how to think herself, and who wants to teach her students how to think, how to communicate, and how to grow in wisdom and virtue even in an age that, in its darkness, reflexively scoffs at such a fanciful dream.

Leah is one of those teachers, and we are all blessed by her commitment to the Christian classical vision.

Come back soon, because I have to tell you about Camille as well. And a lot of others. This could take a while!

When you see the product of their workmanship, you’ll undersatnd why I’m so grateful.

The Lost Tools of Reading

I was asked recently whether The Lost Tools of Writing can be used for literary analysis.

The answer is a whole-hearted yes, LTW can be used for Literary analysis. But be careful. Analysis should follow, not precede, living interaction.

Therefore, properly speaking, one of the things LTW does very effectively is TEACH STUDENTS HOW TO READ literature! When we teach children to read, I believe we err by turning it into an academic exercise too early.

Discussion of themes is only profitable to a child who has already been thinking about themes.

Discussion of character development is premature and counterproductive in a reader who doesn’t care about the characters but is driven to get a good grade. Such a child will never be a good reader and the teacher will help ensure that.

The same holds true when you want to analyze plots and settings and schemes and tropes and whatever else you want to analyze.

By engaging your child in a discussion of whether Scout should have crawled under the fence into the neighbor’s garden, or whether Huck should have helped Jim escape, or whether the youth should have shared the ass’s shadow with the driver, you necessarily will talk about settings, characters, themes, plots, etc. etc.

But you’ll do it informally – naturally. You’ll do it in a dynamic, living way that would not distress the poor author whose book has been killed and lies splayed before the student on the table, eliciting soulish cries of, “ooh, gross.”

If you want, you can even break into a discussion about a plot or something later on – at a moment of readiness, one of those so-called “teachable moments.”

For example, you might be discussing whether Scout should have crawled under the fence.

Now watch this, because it has layers of meaning: You could then ask, Why did Scout crawl under the fence? And why did that happen? And why did that happen? Etc.

Then you could ask, what were the effects of Scout crawling under the fence? And what did that lead to? And then what? etc.

Why would you take them through that silly childish exercise, you ask? Because I’m silly and childish, for one thing. But also because story telling is essentially silly and childish. And please note this:

The essence of the narrative sense is the unraveling and identification of causes and effects. In other words, the plot is the series of events that leads to (causes) a culmination plus the events, often also a series, that flows out of (is caused by) the culmination.

So if you want to do a plot analysis, just talk about why things happened and what caused what. Do this and you will find you are playing with a living animal instead of pinning a dead one to a bulletin board.

In short, you are doing literary analysis when you use The Lost Tools of Writing. If you feel like there would be some value in introducing the technical language of literary analysis, you certainly could do so, but I would urge you to do it in a dynamic, concrete, practical way, and not in an abstract, theoretical way.

Abstract, theoretical thought is for people who have lots of concrete, dynamic experience with living ideas. It is usually best for college students or juniors and seniors in high school who have some use for it beyond getting a good grade so they can go to a good college where they will learn how to teach unwitting high school students how to hate reading by distracting them from reading to doing artificial scientific literary analysis of dead texts.

For those of you who have been involved in the discussion of the difference between organic and mechanical teaching, I think this provides an example of the difference.

Never lose your confidence in the ability of the living text to tell its own story and make its own point. Don’t let the scientific presuppositions of modern education distract you from the spiritual realities that bring so much joy to true learning!

As an aside, if you teach grade school students and have wondered if The Lost Tools of Writing is for you, I would suggest that it is. But probably not for your students. If you want them to learn how to read (as opposed to decoding), you want the tools provided in the tradition of classical rhetoric, now embodied in The Lost Tools of Writing. You can pass them on to your students if you know them yourself.

Learning The Craft of Writing

In my earlier posts on What is Writing, I suggested that we have to attend to two elements of writing to become something like a great writer. Let me qualify that statement. Even if you want to be a good writer, it will happen to the extent that you attend to these two elements. They are drawn from a definition I proposed for writing that goes like this:

Writing is the overflow of the soul into a pattern of words encoded in visual symbols (letters or hierogliphs) for the purpose of communication

I argued that the first half of this definition is just as crucial as the second half, but that a writing program really can’t deal with the first half. Writing programs teach the craft of writing, not the personal qualities or experiences that make someone a great writer. Picture Hemingway writing without his experiences. It wouldn’t have been him. He wouldn’t have been Hemingway. He might have written what he wrote well, though I question even that, but what he wrote wouldn’t have mattered.

It isn’t enough to learn the craft of writing.

On the other hand, it isn’t enough to have experience either. Plenty of big game hunters have mumbled through sentences around the campfire failing utterly to capture the drama of the charging elephant with its ivories flashing, feet stomp-trampling the brush, mammal-sweat-and-leather scent flooding the hunters flared nostrils, the click of the trigger and the flash in the pan deciding who is god and who mortal because they didn’t know where to put a comma.

The craft of writing teaches the writer how to match the form with the content; “to suit the matter to the word, the word to the matter,” to adapt my master.

You cannot escape the need for practice. I know personally because while  I was a fairly talented writer growing up, I didn’t practice the craft as I should have, thinking it was a matter of inspiration, not practice.  If I did want to practice, I only knew how based on what my teachers had taught me or what I experienced of story and reading.

Happily I was brought up in a very verbal environment. My brothers and I yelled at each other all the time. My parents read to us a lot. It is to this reading by my parents that I believe I owe 90% of all my love of learning.

Both of my parents loved stories, as do all unmalformed humans. But you can see that this means that they filled up my soul. There’s plenty there to overflow. Lots of Narnia, mythology, Perelandra, folk tales, Proverbs and proverbs, Shakespeare, Dumas, etc. etc. This was a gift, one of the best they gave me.

And all of that made writing easier for me because it gave me a taste for good writing and an impatience for boring, unimaginative, badly formed, mechanical writing. It all made me a little afraid to try writing stories on my own. I’ve always loved imaginative writing, but until recently I’ve been intimidated by it.

Recently I’ve discovered the craft of writing through classical rhetoric. I can’t begin to describe what it meant to me to read Aristotle’s rhetoric as an adult. I know that isn’t about telling stories, though he includes a bit about the “statement of facts.” But he did identify the thought process a rhetorician (speaker or writer) always has to go through to write or speak. Identifying this process makes it possible to consciously and deliberately imitate it. Nobody had done that in writing before Aristotle!

Having his handbook is a help, but it isn’t enough. A writer also needs a coach. I am still an undisciplined writer. I know that. I pay close attention to everything I read about writing, but I will probably never overcome some of the bad habits I’ve developed as a writer. But I’m beginning to surround myself with coaches, especially in the apprenticeship.

I’ve also begun to dream about joining a writer’s workshop, like the one in Iowa. My path is strewn with obstacles and a few pits, but someday I’d love to get that high level of coaching for fiction writing.

Let me return, however, to my point, hopefully illustrated by the foregoing. Writing, the craft, requires coached practice. Students need to learn the tools of the craft (grammar, punctuation, schemes, tropes, etc.). They need to practice using them and to have their exercises assessed. They need to be corrected and instructed by masters.

Then, when they have souls filled with matter, they’ll know how to suit the word to the matter.