In addition to being a book lover and freelance writer, I teach writing to college freshmen. This week I am working with my class on finding their writers’ voices. There are a lot of examples that I like to use to convey the notion of individuality. We brainstorm with eyes closed, ears open, in groups, by ourselves, even on topics that they feel are not related to writing…though I think everything is related to writing in one way or another. Teaching others to feel this way is something else entirely. I am sharing this with you all because every time I think it’s about teaching, I end up learning so much that helps my own writing to evolve. In turn, that makes me a better reader. Bonus!
As I sat grading blog entries and discussions online this morning, it occurred to me that not only do my young writers grasp and embrace the concept that they are visual learners living in a society where information is thrown at them in bursts all day long, but they tend not to read even the shortest of stories assigned because there is probably a movie version or YouTube clip to replace it. The idea that a constant inundation of visual cues is solely a good thing is their standpoint which allows them to justify Face-booking and tweeting away all of our class time.
This is indeed a complex situation since I am a fanatic lover of words on a page and want all my little ones to find a semblance of sense in the daily assignments they write, and hell, maybe a few people will realize that they enjoy writing itself. There is nothing more I could ask for. So what’s this all got to do with books? Everything.
I have been working on a non-fiction short story collection and a novel at the same time that I have been teaching these wonderful blossoming writers, and when they get stuck…I tend to get a little stuck too. I had someone question the meaning of a quote in class the other day, and I replied, “What do you think it means?” and was met with a completely blank stare and eyes as cold as fresh squeezed lemonade on the porch in May. This made me realize that not everyone wants to analyze the meaning of things. Don’t get me wrong, I know not everyone is a book fiend who longs for days of living off a writing salary alone. But since I am, I try to make that clear and sometimes, the influence of my enthusiasm spills over onto their pages. Not always, but that’s ok with me.
Ever since the infamous quote stare happened, I must admit that I have had a bit less focus while writing my own witty author-isms, because I kept going back to that rainy afternoon in my mind. When I read a quote that I enjoy, I try to present it in a fun way and leave it open to any and all interpretation. This one just didn’t work as easily as intended, but yielded a great lesson in the end.
“No man has a right to monopolize more than he can enjoy.” ~ Percy Bysshe Shelley
That was it. Nothing more; nothing less. I scrawled the Shelley quote on the whiteboard and let the class of twenty write for fifteen minutes to tell me what they thought it meant. When we got to the discuss your answers part, a faded blue jeans and bright red hoodie wearing gent suggested that it was like when your parents told you not to fill your plate up with anything you weren’t going to finish. Brilliant!
Next, a lively young woman with cat’s eye spectacles and Doc Martins that reminded me dearly of my own preferred shit-kickers from the nineties, suggested that “Really no person should bite off more than they can chew…right? I mean that’s always a bad idea…isn’t it?” Exactly!
A few more young budding philosophers chimed in with ideas of their own and I thought to myself, “Wow this was a great selection I made. They totally get it!” I was just about ready to give me the proverbial pat on my own back when I saw it.
Never wanting to single out someone who looks confused, I thought I may go around the room and see what each person has to say. Simply asking to hear from those who have yet to participate, usually works. However, as I walked down the rows nodding at each reply and adding commentary to make each pupil feel that their interpretation lends insight that we didn’t have yet (which it always does), I slowed as I approached the stare head on. When I arrived at the last row, I froze where I stood.
“So what do you think about that?” I asked, and was met with even icier eyeball mojo than before. I tried again: “Everyone has their own interpretation, do you agree with any of them? It’s ok to say no, we don’t have to come to a consensus at all…”
Stare. Stare. Stare.
Just as I was about to let the headlights off the hook, and move on to the rest of the lesson for the day, a bland, “I really just don’t know what it means.” was emitted between gritted teeth below narrowed eyes and furrowed brow. Now we were getting somewhere!
As I realize is often the case when people have already said their peace, and have nothing further to feel intimidated about, there were hands aplenty immediately raised; one girl even squirmed in her seat to add her two cents. But I decided not to make it so easy.
Over the next twenty minutes we broke down the quote in more rudimentary terms, and explained our outlooks to each other. Then revisiting it in its entirety something amazing happened: the stare faded. A smirk appeared. Then a glimmer of a smile: “I think I was way over thinking that.” And we all fall down.
The staring girl—now smiling girl, explained that she was picturing the Monopoly man himself, monocle and all, and it was the image that she couldn’t get past. When we talked about biting off more than we can chew, or used examples about food, she imagined him eating pizza or sitting at the table with her parents; who happened to be Italian, excellent cooks, and always encouraged seconds if not thirds. Of course we all have different images that arise in our minds.
It all became crystal clear to me in that moment. We see what we know just like we write what we know. I can read a book for an entire day and write about it through the evening because I love to do so. When someone mentions “home” to me it is a picture of my bookshelves, a clove-scented candle and a laptop with a side of couch and a dog at my feet. But that’s mine.
I’ve always allowed room for interpretation, but the stare taught me that sometimes, people need a city block for it. Whatever is needed, I hope they can explore and find it with me. If ever there was a day I appreciated how much I learn while teaching writing that was it. What a great feeling to end class with a smile and a sentiment of: You may now pass go. You may now collect 200 dollars!