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Published in Print: January 1, 2004, as A Man of Letters

A Man of Letters

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A teacher learns that when it comes to writing—and studying plants—one thing matters most: attention to detail.

The first time I had a classroom of my own was in 1990. It had no walls. Let me tell you how that happened.

I had been living in Los Angeles for a year or so, driving the serpentine freeways through the desert, breathing in the sagebrush and thunderbird air, and on weekends hiking in the dry, glassy Sierras. I was a couple of years out of college and didn't know what the heck to do with my life. I was making ends meet by working odd jobs, seeing what the world looked like from California, and I was considering teaching English to Armenian immigrants. But then in June, the way you can when you're 23, I drove back East to work at the Bread Loaf School of English, a summer graduate program high in the mountains of Vermont. And something odd happened.

I wasn't a student then. I had been hired to run the bookstore and answer phones at the front desk. But I spent every spare moment outside because I was in awe of that temperate state. The rain amazed me, as did the trees mantling the dark mountains, as did the proliferation—riot, really—of grass, flowers, meadows, sedges, creeks, bogs, ferns, streams. For fun, I floated at night in a mountain pond and listened to the bullfrogs, "their blunt heads farting" (to borrow from the Irish poet Seamus Heaney). The irony was that I had returned to a place I knew well and was noticing it, in many ways, for the first time.

Near the end of summer, after the School of English had finished its six-week term and had been replaced (as it is every summer) by the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference, I got to talking one evening with Ben Reynolds, who ran the conference's social events. I'd been asked to stay on for the two weeks of the conference, to pour drinks for famous and not-so-famous writers at the faculty house, which was pleasant enough duty, and Ben was my boss.

It was supper time (the writers had repaired to the dining hall), and he and I stood alone on the porch, having a beer. He looked a little like a Civil War colonel. He had a good russet mustache, and he held himself with humble dignity, not standing up too straight but always meeting my gaze with a look of quickness and truth in his bright blue eyes.

We were looking out over a newly mown field, where 8-foot-tall wheels of hay cast long shadows, and he told me casually about a writing program he directed during the school year, at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Among other offerings was a correspondence course that high school students from across the United States could take for extra credit, or to strengthen their writing skills—whatever.

I wanted to be one of those teachers who was so clear in his own use of language that the kids couldn't help but learn to write, to burn with a passion to write, once I was through with them.

"I always need a few good teachers," he said in his light Baltimore accent as he gazed wistfully across the meadow. "It's always hard," he went on, "to find teachers who can get across on paper, through the mail, how to write."

In an instant, I wanted to be one of those who could teach writing through the mail, who was so clear in his own use of language that the kids couldn't help but learn to write, to burn with a passion to write, once I was through with them.

"Would you consider an application to teach from me?" I asked, and after some hemming and hawing he allowed that he'd be happy "to take a look" at an application I'd submitted. In this way I was ensnared. What I didn't know was that, in actual fact (as opposed to the imaginary facts we more often sling around), I had signed up for the best writing course I could ever hope to take, let alone teach.

The details of my year to come became clear over the next several weeks: I would have 20 students, and once the course was up and running, every two weeks they'd receive from me a critique of their previous assignment as well as a new assignment. Likewise, every two weeks I'd receive from them a completed assignment. Ideally the two packets would pass in the air. For my efforts, I would receive two lump payments of $1,250. I thought this would be a snap. Little did I know I'd spend at least a hundred hours a month on this job. (Several years later, by the way, the job would be supplanted by online correspondence, but I've found that the impromptu, off-the-cuff nature of e-mail doesn't quite offer the same depth of thought.)

For their trouble, the students would become better writers, possibly improve their SAT scores, have stronger résumés for their college applications, and deepen their understanding of the world. The whole thing sounded marvelous. Ah, how blithe our leaps into the unknown can be.

After the conference ended, as autumn began to show in the trees near the tops of the mountains, I packed up my old Rabbit diesel and headed south to Cape Cod, where I'd grown up and had decided to spend the winter.

In early September, on a cool, sunny day, I received a large manila envelope from the CTY containing much advice as well as a suggested curriculum for the course. It seemed to weigh 50 pounds. I was to teach poetry, essay, short story, argument, drama, etc., and I was to be prompt about sending assignments and responses. Largely, though, I was to be on my own. Included in the packet were the names of the students, as well as their ages (13 to 17), grade levels, and addresses. I had my charge. And my students, I found, lived as far south as Florida, as far north as Maine, as far west as Hawaii, as centrally as Oklahoma, and as far out as L.A. I would be teaching writing to America.

I sent my first letter to the students around the 10th of September. I introduced myself, telling them where I was living, that I had a degree in English from Middlebury College, and that I'd received several poetry scholarships for the Bread Loaf conference. I also asked them to read the essay I'd included ("Summer Pond" by Edward Hoagland, an American novelist and essayist who writes wonderfully clear prose about how the natural and human worlds intersect) and to pen one in a similar style.

And then I waited. I worked my other job as a landscaper and commuted two days a week to classes in environmental studies at Antioch New England Graduate School in Keene, New Hampshire. One class was called "Winter Plant Identification."

On the Cape, among the plants of which I became daily more aware, I lived in an old, square, wood-frame house in Hatchville. It had been the parsonage of the Quaker meeting house just down the road. The meeting house was now the home of a Jewish congregation, and my abode somehow had drifted into secular life. Black locust saplings crowded the yard, and I shared the place with three other young people—an aspiring entomologist, an unemployed biologist, and a roofer. After two weeks, the envelopes started to arrive, offering a panoply of responses. But let me be clearer about what I'd asked them to do.

The essay by Hoagland, as I reread it now, seems almost gemlike in its clarity. Its vision is sharp, with many clear images joined. And the best thing is that it manages to propose a complex idea in a simple way. Here are a couple of sentences from "Summer Pond":

A log sunk on the bottom looms like a snapping turtle. The stems of the pond lilies, rising five feet, tangle one's arms a little frighteningly—people have sometimes drowned that way—and leeches live among them, eating the bullfrogs' eggs.

This is what is seen by the swimmer as he gazes downward, and I see now how carefully Hoagland put this piece together, showing us the metaphor alive in the lilies. Back then, as a callow teacher, I saw a rather charming little vignette and felt it would be a good way to begin our course.

What I wanted in return were 20 essays, tightly composed, that would bring me into their worlds. The thought was to allow each kid to write from a place of certain knowledge—his or her own backyard—so that "subject" would be easy to master, which would leave the writer free to work on "style" and "form."

Well, it wasn't that easy. Two of the essays, one by a 15-year-old named James, who lived on a farm in Delaware, and another from16-year-old Dennis, living on the big island of Hawaii, were easy to read and gave me some idea of what was going on around them. In each I learned of a house, weather, plants, something of the surroundings—rural and suburban, respectively. But the other essays were rough, and even in the "good" pieces it was clear that we had failed to communicate. I hadn't really told them what I liked in the Hoagland essay, what I wanted them to emulate.

This was the problem: Although I knew what sort of writing I liked when I read it, I couldn't yet put into words what made it good. I realized my failing soon after I'd received the 20th essay in the mail. It was late afternoon, the air was crisp, the sun was streaming weakly through the treetops. I was strolling down the cracked asphalt of Hatchville Road toward the old cemetery that stretched behind the meeting house. Brown and yellow Norway maple leaves were strewn everywhere and rustled underfoot, and I was musing that I really didn't know what the hell "good writing" was. I was also musing that,although the meeting house was now the home of a Jewish congregation, the graves were those of families who'd settled the land hundreds of years before—people with names like Hatch and Landers and Eldridge. Plus, I lived among neither Quakers nor Jews in the old parsonage; they were more like a bunch of tofu-eating agnostics. We were all so specific in our definitions.

Although I knew what sort of writing I liked when I read it, I couldn't yet put into words what made it good.

I turned into the cemetery, walked 40 yards or so, and sat down. The graves were set in rows that undulated gently over the lumpy ground, and the stones were largely slate and dark gray, with deeply carved letters saying simple things—Jonathan Hatch, 1826-1864. Most of the stones leaned one way or another, and several small stands of red cedar broke the grassy expanse, which sloped gently down and west, away from the gray-shingled, boxy meeting house, and then gave way to woods—a thicket of pin oak and cat brier, with bittersweet and fox grape climbing through and entangling all.

I sat there for a while, and, as the afternoon deepened, I scanned the uneven rows of headstones. Each stood for a person of certain identity, with a specific gait, a means of elocution, a dialect, a bearing, a hair color, a scent. Who had they been? How could they have been described?

In their essays, none of my students had written anything that jumped off the page. What I'd failed to say to them had to have something to do with individuality, or description. What had I assumed they would understand from Hoagland's writing which was not self-evident? I sat and stewed and stared some more at the gravestones.

Looking for other writers' testimony on the subject, I'd turned up a few things. Archibald MacLeish had composed the poem "Ars Poetica," in which he writes, "A poem should be wordless/ As the flight of birds" and "For all the history of grief/ An empty doorway and a maple leaf." OK, I thought, there's something there. Joseph Conrad once wrote, "My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, above all, to make you see." Similarly, George Orwell had said that "good prose is like a window pane." This was the phrase that ran through my head as I watched a monarch butterfly work over some milkweed whose downy seeds were beginning to burst from their pods.

Leaning back on my elbows in the graveyard and looking into the sun now low in the trees, I knew what I had failed to stress to my students and how I would proceed.

The essays were missing details. My students had told me about some of the things that surrounded them, but they weren't specific. I needed to know what sort of cow, which neighbor, and how did he look, and did he drawl or limp, and what kind of plant, and, doggone it, what precisely did one of its leaves look like? They'd given me basic, blocky descriptions only, nothing to make the writing come alive. So I wrote back, parsing the essays in detail, praising the many good things and calling attention to the almost universal deficit of specifics. Then I made the next assignment. This time, we'd attempt a poem. As a guide, I sent them James Wright's "A Blessing," which I chose for clarity of image. It's a deceptively simple poem, but, like Hoagland's essay, it's full of detail.

The poems I received in return began to show an understanding of what I was looking for. But the accompanying notes expressed curiosity as to where I was going with all of this "specificity." Basically they were asking, "Where's the art here? Isn't there some secret metaphorical kind of thingamabob that you ought to be telling me about how to make a great poem?"

In reply, I praised them for places where their poems helped me see or hear or feel something clearly, and I pointed out where imagery became hazy, smelled generic, sounded garbled. And I knew I was onto something.

The autumn deepened, and so did our practice. I would spend three days each week trimming trees, rebuilding stone walls, or clearing brush, and then a couple of days in New Hampshire, learning to identify the native plants of New England: arrowwood, hobblebush, maple-leafed viburnum, sumac, hackmatack, red maple, striped maple, black ash.

I was learning to key them out, to look for details such as leaf shape and arrangement, shape of leaf scar, type of bark and habitat (wet, dry, swamp, upland), and I found suddenly that everywhere I looked, details jumped out at me. A white oak was so an oak when I looked at its miniature, artichoke-like alternating leaf buds, with their clustered arrangement at the end of a twig, an arrangement so different from the art deco buds of a red maple, with their smooth brown scales. Still more different were the light-brown spear-point buds of a copper beech.

The word "bark" changed, too; it could no longer stand alone because I knew that a beech's bark was gray and smooth, like an elephant's skin. A black cherry's bark, on the other hand, was dark, gray-purple, and even smoother—almost translucent in a younger tree. As the cherry aged, however, the bark darkened, thickened, began to resemble dark-brown asphalt. There was no longer simply "bark" for me. Everything had become more complex.

On weekends I stayed in my room, which had been the library in the old parsonage, and responded to my students' writing. I sat on the floor, which was carpeted with a thin red wall-to-wall rug. All around me rose empty bookshelves as I read and typed into my first-generation laptop, a primitive beast. My housemates would thump around downstairs, surviving on peanut butter, wearing three sweaters each to avoid turning up the heat. And the more I responded to my students' writing and tried to help them grow as authors, the more I found that I wasn't looking any longer for grammatical correctness, although that remained important. I was looking for clarity. More than anything else, I wanted my students to notice the world around them, then to make it "ring true."

We moved through Walt Whitman and tried to write free verse, and we read Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat" and tried to write a story in its likeness—with a few disparate characters and some small surprise at the end. We read August Wilson's Fences (one in the great playwright's series of 20th century plays, each portraying a decade of life in an African American community in Pittsburgh) and tried our hands at writing dialogue that sounded real. And, of course, we wrote a five- part essay, just as they'd have to do for a hundred assignments in high school and college. We also read Shakespeare, wrote a sonnet, and composed blues lyrics.

Meanwhile, I moved deeper into my study of plant identification, tramping through feet of snow in high New Hampshire woods, looking for hop hornbeam and shagbark hickory, coming across fisher tracks—not to be confused with bobcat or coyote. And my students wrestled with journalism, penning a story in staccato newspaper prose. They took another shot at the short personal essay. All the while, they improved.

I guess it was around February that my internal pedagogy settled into a simple directive: Ask them to open a window onto their worlds. Insist on clarity, simplicity, but, above all, specificity of detail. Beyond that, simply pose the questions: "What is not clear here? What can't I see?"

It soon became obvious to me that I could now dispense with the words "wrong" and "right," with their connotations of saintliness and damnation.

It soon became obvious to me that, in my teaching, I could now dispense with the words "wrong" and "right," with their connotations of saintliness and damnation. No longer did I have to think about making a kid feel lousy, unskilled, low-class, or just dumb by grading his or her writing according to accepted norms of style and form. Now (and, of course, I've had some time to think about this over the years) I could couch my teaching in statements like, "When you said it was stormy out, it made me curious to see the clouds and hear what the wind sounded like."

Instead of saying, "This character isn't real" or "The grammar here is incorrect," I could now say, "I can't see this guy yet, can't hear him. What does he look like? How does he sound?" If discovering how he sounded meant paying closer attention to the details of Standard American English, then the "rules of grammar" would be invoked, not in the name of propriety, but rather in the name of getting the details right.

"Does this guy speak Standard American English or some other dialect?" was a common question. "If he does speak SAE, then his use of a double negative doesn't fit. Rewrite for reality." That might have been one of my notes, and my philosophy of teaching writing became one which might be summed up as "Focus that microscope on the words, and turn up the magnification."

And it is odd how easily other things, such as setting, plot, character, conflict, or the substance of an argument, take care of themselves once this parameter of specificity is clear in a kid's mind.

In early spring, I sent my students an essay of my own, suitably hazy, which they were instructed to critique. And I saw that they were learning.

George from Philadelphia insisted that I "bring the ocean into focus," and Bea in Missouri wrote that I'd neglected to describe any of the animals well. Dennis in Hawaii had no sense of color from my writing, and James in Delaware asked me, since the essay centered on the power of the sea, to describe just how a great wave comes ashore.

I made the changes they'd requested, and I think they saw the difference their suggestions could make. But something else was happening, something unique to teaching writing by mail. We were becoming friends. Perhaps not true friends, and not in any inappropriate sense, but we were gradually establishing a trust built entirely through words on the page. I attribute this to the power behind the phrase "I hear you," of course amended here to "I read you."

A small orchard near James' farmhouse in Delaware—a place he liked enormously—became a place he was able to bring into sharp relief. By the end of our year, I felt I could walk through that little copse, striding past the eight gnarled Cox's Orange Pippins and weaving between the nine old McIntoshes.

And so we launched into spring, and I found that the students had begun to treat their reader (me) as a being who navigated through a text by his senses: They included the details more and more, and their writing improved in proportion. By God, it was a whole lot more fun to read! And this is a truth that we neglect at our peril.

Before Cain began to farm, before the Mesopotamians established their culture, we lived by our wits. Life happened then in the jungle, on the savanna, in the forest, and was lived in small, vulnerable groups. The natural world was our fierce maker, and by its dangerous standards every bit of our neural machinery was formed. As the late Paul Shepard (one of the seminal thinkers on human ecology) once noted, we are not programmed to process conceptual gobbledygook. We like to watch a red-tail hawk in flight. Or a horse galloping across a dusty plain, a cheetah sprinting after reebok, an arrow shhhhhoooking into a tree, stopped suddenly and quivering there. Velocity! Danger! This is what grabs our attention, the same way a movement in tall grass at the far side of a meadow would have caught our eyes as we stalked game on an autumn afternoon a thousand years ago. Even in the deadliest theoretical boilerplate, a canny writer will include imagery to make his points strike home. And Mark Twain, that greatest of American thinkers, couched his grandest ideas in tales of boys living on the shores of the Mississippi.

I benefited from the change in my students' writing in two ways: It was much more interesting, and it was much easier for me to assess the effort they'd put into it. Quite apart from their ability as spellers, or from their ability to use whatever grammar they had received in their dialects, I could tell how much work they'd put into finding the details that fit their particular pieces of writing. And this further clarified how children are often wrong when they say, "I can't write," or "I'm a bad writer."

They may actually be saying "I'm dyslexic—I have trouble spelling," or "The grammar I received growing up isn't standard, so it always gets marked wrong," or "My penmanship sucks." But the same kid may be great atdescribing something in detail if given the chance.

Indeed, several years later, when I taught high school English in rural Mississippi, I had several students who couldn't pass a grammar quiz for their lives. But when I asked them to "write some sentences the way I speak," they were able to write flawlessly in Standard American English. They were hearing a tape of me in their heads and writing down what they heard, even though it sounded "wrong" to them. I tried to make them aware of the differing dialects they could hear in their heads, so that they could be specific about why and when they used them. And I stressed over and over that neither dialect was wrong, that "I be goin' to the store" and "I am going to the store" were equally effective, but that one wouldn't fly on a college application. My message was that they'd better be aware of what they wanted to achieve and which words to use to get there.

Once grammar and dialect are seen as the details of communication rather than the right and wrong of it, I believe it's easier to let go of the myth of propriety that so many teachers lean upon and simply teach students to write as powerful Americans, able to master any dialect or vernacular mode found in these 50 states, or in New Zealand, Australia, the Hebrides, Labrador, or South Africa.

Old Will Strunk and E.B. White saw things differently than I do on this point. They felt there was a right way and a wrong way to write—that there had to be, or things got out of hand. But that's old hat. I believe we all ought to master every dialect we can, starting with SAE. I also think that there is a "what works" and a "what doesn't work" in any writing situation and that to present it this way makes all the difference. If you see things this way, a bad speller can become a great writer (who has a small problem with spelling) overnight, if you can get her to see it that way.

But it remains ironic (and telling) that much of what worked well with my 20 young American writers came to me out of the study of plants. Any scientist reading this will nod, knowing that science happens through specific language just like the rest of life. When we write well, the walls between disciplines begin to crumble. I learned that best as I grappled with how to describe the bark of a black locust tree, Robinia pseudoacacia (deeply ridged, soft to the touch, almost like the face of a very old person, or an apple dried in the sun). This, of course, is why teaching writing across the curriculum is so valid.

There are two more points I'd like to make before the tires of your attention go completely flat.

The first is a reminder that we are, most of us, primarily visual. I can't stress enough how important it was to convince my students, before anything else, to look carefully, to be the eyes of their reader. We carry our heads high and move through the world eyes first; it's how we've met life for hundreds of thousands of years. This is our platform, our hard drive. If you want to hold someone's attention, give him images—moving, vibrant, strong—and choose them well. Rely on the open doorway, the crumbling wall, the foundering ship to speak of the end of something.

And my second point: It is an admonition, really. It is just to say, "Let it happen" with regard to the art of things. I was careful that year, as I have been since, to require specificity of detail, dialect, and grammar in my students' writing, but never to rate the art of it. Rather I let them read, let them write, and let the art come as it will. There is no "way" of creating art with words, in my estimation, that can be shown, other than to encourage a person to do it with focus. Which is a big relief, really. The ineffable remains so, and we must content ourselves with getting the details right, seeing things clearly, writing them down. On a back road, the tire deflates all by itself, thumps, we stop the car, get out; we are suddenly abroad in new country.

Vol. 15, Issue 4, Pages 39-43

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