Corrected by Students

Today, for my class activity, I had my English 1010 students divide into four groups. I handed a printed copy of a different personal essay to each group and instructed my students that they had 15 minutes to read the essay. Then, after discussing their group’s essay, the students in each group had to identify the strengths, weaknesses, and ways they would apply what they learned from their assigned essay to their own personal essay they’d been assigned. During my first class, I told my students that two of the essays were written by my colleagues and two were written by me. The group that read my bee essay (Bumblebee Homicide from this summer) lauded its humor, and the group that read my disgusting service project essay (Used. $1.00 from about a year ago) praised its detail. Neither group listed any strong weaknesses, but the first group did indicate that the parts of the essay could connect to each other a little more smoothly. The second group said that they didn’t see what the main point of the essay was. I thought that the students were holding back genuine criticism because they were aware that the essays’ author, the teacher, was listening. I wrote a note to myself not tell my later class that I’d written any of the essays.

When my next class came around, I divided the class and distributed essays like earlier, but this time I didn’t tell them that I’d written any of them. The results were quite different. The students who read the first essay boldly proclaimed their confusion in following the bee narrative. “What does this part have to do with anything?” one student loudly asked her group mates. In the group reading the disgusting service essay, a student yelled across the room to me, “Mr. Hall, did you write this?” I told him that I wouldn’t confirm or deny anything because that would bias my students. Then I walked behind my desk and pretended to write something in my notebook.
When it came time to present their essays to the class, the group with the bee essay didn’t hold back their criticism. “This essay was a mess and really confusing,” the girl speaking said. “It was funny at parts, and it had lots of good words, but we just didn’t get what was going on.” I felt deflated. Then the student from the other group asked, “Mr. Hall, did you write that essay?” I blushed, caught myself blushing, and tried to regain composure.

“I wrote some of these essays, but I won’t tell you which until after class,” I said. After my reply, the girl presenting at the front of the class continued her assault on my writing.

“What I’m going to take from this essay is to not make mine so confusing,” she said. “But it does have a lot of personality, so I am going to include that.”

The student who figured out that these were my essays spoke on behalf of his group members when his group presented. The only weakness he listed was that the essay had a negative tone, and that he felt that essays should have a more positive message (this is the kid who has a large tattoo of a cross in front of a sunset on his right upper arm, by the way, but not that that means anything).
I left class feeling small, a little dejected, but acknowledging that my students’ comments were probably right. “This shows that even if you really like a piece of writing, if it doesn’t work, you need to change it,” I’d told the class right before I let them go for the weekend. “How the audience reacts to your writing is more important than if you like a particular wording or not.” And I’d meant it as I said it.

In my melancholy acceptance of my essays’ quality (which I really used to like, by the way), I felt a lot like I did in seminar all those times when Sharon would very forcibly show me the areas I needed to improve my writing. And I felt that same undeniable sense of “I don’t like this, but she’s right” that I did when Sharon pulled up an essay about a chair or something trivial like that and made me stand up in front of everyone in seminar while she dissected it.

I have a degree in English. I worked for almost two and a half years at the Writing Center. I was the EAS president and the top student in several of my classes. I’m Mr. Hall, a bearded college teacher, for crying out loud. But a group of college freshman reminded me of where I really stand in comparison to good or even competent writers.

And that constant reminder of what I’m really capable of (which is not much compared to The Greats) is part of why I love teaching university. In my experience, I haven’t had a student of a bad Sunday School or Priesthood lesson force me to face my spiritual inadequacies. I think it’s because class members at church don’t comment on the quality of a teacher’s spirituality. I’ve never heard a student say, “But Brother Jones, you say that we must love one another, yet I saw you flip off that old woman driving slowly on the road last Wednesday.” But my students, by being honest in sharing what they thought about my writing, slapped me in the face with the reality of my quality as a writer.

Once, while I was persuading some students on the British literary pilgrimage to dislike other students singing on the bus, Kirsten said to me, “You need to find a wife who is a little bit better than you to keep you humble.” These students aren’t quite a substitute for a wife (maybe a girlfriend, though), but they are helping me remember how lowly I really am and how much I have to improve before I can begin to call myself “good” at anything.

For some perverse reason, that feels nice.

(P.S. for the first time ever, I feel too intimidated to make comments in a class. I see the other graduate students as more intelligent and insightful than me, so I just sit and listen while they speak.)

(P.P.S. Also, posting on this blog is intimidating for some reason. Even though I know and love most of you and I know that the ones I know aren't perfect, I see your writing as much more significant than my own.)

(P.P.P.S. Congrats again, Shannon and Cooley.)

"Writer" with a capital "W"

I sit in the red armchair that’s much too large for me, my legs curled under me and my daughter nursing with grunts, squeaks, and slurps. On one arm of the chair I’ve spread a book, and I turn the pages with my free hand.

The book I’m reading is not a novel, but it holds me enthralled. It’s a book of creative non-fiction called Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage by one of my favorite fiction authors, Madeleine L’Engle. I picked it up because my creative writing teacher said we need to read more of what we want to write this semester; we can’t work on novels for his class, I haven’t felt inspiration for poetry in over a year, and I’m very bad at short stories, so creative non-fiction it is.

One thing I’m struck by as I read is the way she talks about writing. Of her post-college-pre-marriage years, she says, “I wrote. Got out of bed in the morning and wrote, forgetting breakfast.” In her journal during her married years she recorded, “There is a gap in understanding between me and our friends and acquaintances. I can’t quite understand a life without books and study and music and pictures and a driving passion. And they, on the other hand, can’t understand why I have to write, why I am a writer. When, for instance, I say to someone that I have to get home to work, the assumption is that I mean housecleaning or ironing, not writing a book. I’m very kindly permitted to be a writer but not to take time in pursuing my trade.”

I lift my daughter’s head to my shoulder, rearranging the burp cloth and patting her back distractedly while the book’s pages slowly flip without a hand there to hold my place. I’m currently taking the last two classes of my bachelor’s degree, a degree in English, emphasis in creative writing. But this passage makes me question: am I really a writer?

In the book My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, the main character is an extremely gifted artist. While he is young he has the opportunity to take art lessons from a famous artist, but first the artist tells him that if he can do anything else with his life, anything, he should do it, but if he has to be an artist, then so be it. I’ve heard similar things said about writing, that “real” writers write because they have to, not because they necessarily want to.

I don’t have to. In fact, most of the time I feel very little drive to write. I can go days or weeks without writing more than emails and status updates on facebook. I haven’t kept a consistent journal since high school. I write to fill my school assignments, and every once in awhile I’ll get some inspiration (a.k.a. inner turmoil) and rattle off a blog post.

But then I’ll read something like Two-Part Invention, or the essay “Pearls Before Breakfast” by Gene Weingarten. And then I have to write. Suddenly it is compulsory, poking at a corner of my brain that makes my mouth dry up and my fingers twitch and my mind spin in circles, driving me crazy until I start to let the whirling dervishes out through words—and then it’s over. I get it out and it’s gone. I go back to clicking around on Facebook, or, if I’m feeling really ambitious, I do some dishes.

So I apparently do have some of the drive of a writer, but its infrequency makes me question its validity. Rather, it makes me question whether I can truly be a Writer-with-a-capital-“W,” or if I will finish my degree this semester and then let it sit and rot.

My daughter’s fussing again. I should go get her, but I’m actually writing, and I’m afraid if I stop I won’t start again.


Did not intend this to be a "Sermon" to Shannon, but, hey . . .

(I tried to write this as a comment to your post, but it got too long and wouldn't post.)

What a doll she is. And, hey, you can't write a conclusion because there isn't one, nor will there ever be. You now have another life attached to yours--forever. Sounds overwhelming? It is. But, it gets better . . . then worse . . . then better. I promise. Don't long for things to be good and well--a trap we all fall into. Earth life never reaches plateaus of pure happiness and peace. It keeps moving. But, you learn to adore every good day or moment and set your teeth tight against the bad. And, we keep walking. Only now lucky you have more company. The more your family grows, the more you have great spirits around you to comfort and heal you throughout all eternity. After, you have children you are never alone again (literally, in the first years). It's a wonderful feeling.
But, Shannon, I so relate to the physical agony of setting dreams aside for a while. That can even seem like the physical tearing of muscle. One time when I was having trouble with this, I got an interesting answer to prayer. It's sacred, but I'm going to tell you anyway, since I never see you anymore.
I was teaching full time while raising six kids and a "husband." Between lesson plans, grocery shopping, potty training, etc. plus dealing with an energy sucking illness, I often felt like I couldn't breathe because I had no time for myself. But, you have to treasure your own dreams, no matter how you squeeze them in. Figure out a plan because the dreams feed you. Me? After Jim fell asleep, I’d often sneak out the window and sit on the roof to write--small moments of pure flashlight delight. Yet, this stopped also after the kids became teenagers because they came home around midnight and took away even that small amount of space. I felt like pieces of me were flying out to everyone else leaving me shredded, with nothing of Me. Does that make sense? But, in prayer one night, a soft answer came. The Spirit said, "You will be compensated; you will not lose any good desire of your heart. This is what eternity is for." I was amazed and thrilled as that vision opened up, But, then horror set in as I saw what kind of patience this would take to wait, maybe even until the next life, for some dreams to unfold-- especially since "patience is not a strong suit of mine (or yours). Yet, think of it: To be a goddess, we HAVE to have patience even as great as Heavenly Father’s. What a plan. What a way to let us practice patience until it’s really a part of our character. I think the Lord is brilliant (ha, obviously). This path we walk is bigger than we can imagine. I love you. You’re strong. And whatever you can’t do, Heavenly Father can. (I feel like I should say Amen, and I remember promising never to give advice again. Ha. Sure.)