11 January 2014
The trouble with starting to think about something (e.g., writing, and what I think and have thought about it) is that it leads inexorably to other things, and (as they say) there goes today... but since I have any number of todays to fill as I like, this 'trouble' is more opportunity than burden. After I sent you that tsunami of links (which of course contain links, turtles all the way down), I started to think about my own repeating patterns, and that provoked yesterday's blog post and a certain slightly rueful feeling. So I was very pleased to have your email responses, and an opportunity to continue to think along the lines your original question directed me toward.
Teaching writing... no, I've never thought that I might do such a thing. Both Betsy and Kate have done a lot of editing (and, along with cartography, that's essentially Kate's occupation these days), which is surely a practical and distributable (and reasonably lucrative) facet of the 'teaching' of writing. I've always felt that my own writing was idiosyncratic, generally satisfying to me as a means of Expression, but not necessarily a basis for helping anybody else to develop as a writer. In the most general terms, I've long felt that what somebody who proposed to be a Teacher should do, first and foremost, is to be seen to be a Learner, with the underlying hope that students might be inspired/encouraged in the direction of emulation. I summed a lot of that up in a statement of "Goals and Methods of Teaching" almost 20 years ago and I still think pretty much the same things. So I feel myself to be a Learner in the grand process of articulating what I think.
What I wish I'd figured out long ago (and think pretty much NObody has figured out) is how to help people learn to be active READERS. I surely spent a lot of years reading (a lot of) stuff very mechanically, or (truth to tell) superficially, and only in the last 20 or so have I had the feeling that I was sometimes really getting to the essence of reading as a mental process. Fortunately my education spared me the burden of "close reading" and lit-crit and postmodernist flimflam about textuality that has blighted most of the humanities (and, I think, done nothing to help ordinary folk toward the satori of Active Reading). Perhaps not so fortunately, the present is a challenging time for reading in the full sense I'm after here, and (for example) the 140-character limit of Twitter is no help at all when it comes to eloquent communication. I don't think I buy the line that says "nobody reads anymore" but the eloquence of long-form material like New Yorker and New York Review of Books articles isn't a common taste these days (and maybe it never was). Certainly the college-age young are not much inclined to be readers, from everything I've seen and heard, and the trajectory of higher education is further and further from that golden dream of the Liberal Arts.
A lot of MY real education took place in Cambridge and Palo Alto bookstores, browsing and buying stuff that seemed like it opened new doors... and those bookstores are mostly vanished now. The Web and Amazon fill that empty space for me, and there are hundreds of books in the home library that I could profitably pick up again. In fact I've often thought about trying a systematic tour through that library, trying to put each book into its context and perhaps extract nuggets of especially great import... but for whom or for what? The answer is unclear, unless it's for my own Integration.
I have the same challenge with the thousands of vinyl albums and CDs: I _know_ so much about the music contained in those media, but there's so much more to discover and to know, and perhaps to distill into some sort of communicable summary. A life's work, or more precisely another life's work.
I'm not sure if it's any service to inflict more thoughts on writers and writing, but since we were talking of them, here's another fragment of today's nibbling at the leaves:
At the other end of the spectrum of writers are the Esteemed Heroes, the famous and successful. A piece I just read from NYRB's blog blunts my admiration of that tribe. I've known several wannabe novelists (but none who managed to grab the brass ring and become famous) so I'm familiar with the "crushing sense of personal failure" that the unpublished often feel. Lots of academics live similar lives of quiet desperation too.
And talking of academia and its foibles, I've just started to read John Williams' Stoner after finding it mentioned as a favorite-book-of-the-year by one of the odd-duck Brits I follow via his blog. I've read a lot of fiction set in Academe (for years an annual rereading of Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim was balm to the bruised soul), but rarely have I run across one so lovingly described by its readers. I can't recall ever hearing of it, though it's been around since 1965. Which is to say, there's always lots of new stuff to discover.