Occasionally, I meet students who have no room for instructions. They’ve got it down, the machine runs smoothly, and, besides, where would they put another part? They worry I’ll disrupt their rhythm or, worse, make them my machine.
But they needn’t worry. Though we sometimes treat elements of writing like holy law, effective thesis statements, clear topic sentences, and the proper way to integrate quotations don’t exist in nature and shouldn’t be mistaken for universal truths. I may urge students to pay attention to writing conventions—and add a few fixations of my own, like “Avoid the naked this (or that)”—but, if they return to their old ways when they walk out the door, who cares? No disruption in the cosmic order. No grand violation of verities.
Believe me, it’s occurred to me that I might be full of shit. I have do’s and don’ts and maybes from my own teachers. I didn’t accept everything because some of what my teachers said made sense and some didn’t. Some made sense later. Ideally, my students total the best of all their teachers’ discoveries. Their synthesis makes them unique. They find their own way. I inwardly frown when students complain, “I don’t know what you want!” I want something, it’s true—I have what I think are good lessons to impart—but what I want most is for them to understand my instruction and develop their own voices.
I never get very far with students who are fans of their own prose and regard my advice as arbitrary or fetishistic. I try to reason with them because I don’t want to turn to my authority as a capital-W Writer. Most people write. “I’m a writer too,” they protest, “and what makes you so special?”
To those students, I say, “Nothing.” We are all journeymen, and, if no more discoveries awaited us, no more fun would await us either.
We have one published writer in our department, and he is always—jokingly—reminding us of his status. But the truth is that all the English teachers at my school are writers who have years of practice, not status or affirmation or degrees, as their greatest ally. I wish I were a published writer, but would it make me a better teacher? For me, self-promotion is tiresome and embarrassing. I’d rather share writing with my students than play strongman, expert, or hero.
Of course I’d like them to respect my experience—because only a listener can learn—but my number one writing rule is always having something to uncover. Every rule is temporary.