Bonehead Writing

by Craig Vetter

There's a sort of low moan that goes up periodically from the English departments at colleges and universities across the country over the fact that most students, even the good ones, can't write a lick - not a love letter or a suicide note, much less an essay or a term paper. It's nothing new, but according to the teachers who have to read this crap for a living, the further we get into the computer era the worse it's becoming. So at places like Harvard and Yale and Brown, they're holding faculty conferences to hash the problem through; they're designing bonehead writing courses and setting up special peer-group tutoring problems in an all-out, last-ditch effort to ensure that their graduates will at least be able to fill out applications for day labor without embarrassing themselves.

They haven't gone so far as to suggest that a student be required to write, say, one short coherent paragraph in order to graduate, but there are signs that they're getting a little desperate. For one thing, they're hiring more and more writers, and I don't mean just the cocktail-party lions of big fiction, either. They're actually cleaning out the mop closets to make office space for journalists and other freelance grubs who have spent most of their careers below decks, sweating and wiping the greasy pipes in the engine room of the profession.

Somehow, I haven't been asked. I am qualified, though; at it almost 20 years with nothing to show except a world-class alcohol/tobacco habit, debt that follows me like a huge pet rat and a small, used Olivetti with a leatherette case. Credentials, in other words. And I know some things about writing that others are not likely to tell you; ugly things. I think I could cram most of them into the first lecture, which, given the size of the problem, would probably have to be held in a fairly large room. If I did it right, though - if I were honest with my students - I think we could most likely hold the second class in a Datsun and get everybody in comfortably.

So picture me now, walking across the quad in my uniform - torn bathrobe, bolo tie, blown-out L.L. Bean boating mocs - smelling like a ripe field of Cannabis, making little Indian hand signals to the Jordache and Calvin coeds, then gripping the lectern and looking out into the small bay of faces that are waiting for me to teach them about writing.

"Good morning, children, and brace yourselves. This is Writing One-A. I wanted to subtitle it 'Writing for those who still sign their name with an X,' but the administration said, 'No, these kids aren't stupid or uneducated, just writing-impared.' I love that. Makes you sound like Helen Keller at the pump, waiting for a miracle. It's not entirely your fault, though; I know that. There isn't one in a thousand teachers who knows the first damn thing about writing. All your lives, they've been reducing it to widgets and screws, clauses and semicolons for you, till what you think you're working with is a dainty sort of parlor art, something like embroidery.

"The truth is that writing is a blood sport, a walk in the garden of agony every time out, which is why those who are any good at it look older than their contemporaries, snap at children on the street, live alone. Like me.

"So you can pretty much forget the polite approach to writing in here. What I'm going to show you this semester is that you don't have what it takes to write well. You never did and you never will. In fact, you probably ought to think of this class as one of those wilderness-survival courses that are popular these days. Except that instead of taking you out in a happy little group and encouraging you to face trouble and danger as a team, I want you to imagine that you're going to be hustled into deep woods at midnight, trussed up, beaten senseless and left to die. If you do make it back to camp, we'll give you a nice T-shirt that says, I SURVIVED THE DOWNWARD BOUND SCHOOL OF WRITING, you'll be re-beaten, then dragged to a less benign part of the forest.

"And if you think that metaphor exaggerates what's ahead of you, take a look at this. Don't turn away, you wormy little cowards. This is your enemy: a perfectly empty sheet of paper. Nothing will ever happen here except what you make happen. If you are stupid, what happens will be like a signed confession of that fact. If you are unfunny, a humorless patch of words will grow here. If you lack imagination, your reader will know you immediately and forever as the slug you are. Or let me put it to you this way - and you may want to tattoo this somewhere on your bodies - BLANK PAPER IS GOD'S WAY OF TELLING US THAT IT'S NOT SO EASY TO BE GOD.

"But I'm not here to give you just the good news this morning, so let's get right to the ugliest of today's ironies. I'm stealing your money. I couldn't teach you how to write if I wanted to, if you wanted me to. Everybody who ever learned this wretched craft taught himself, and he did it despite the lettered fools who got into the process here and there, because writing is not, first, the gathering up and stringing together of words. Writing is thinking, which means that every time you sit down to do it, you get another chance to find out just how perceptive you aren't. To come up with one simple, interesting or funny thought on anything is the hardest, dirtiest shoveling any of us ever has to do, and no one can teach you how to do it.

"There is one trick I can give you, however; a way for you to seem smarter and more clever than you really are. All you have to do is spend 40 or 50 hours working up an idea, a sentence, that looks when you've written it as if it took 90 seconds to make. You don't have to tell anyone how long you were alone in your own weak mind, floundering and whining - that it took you eight full days to write a dopey little 900-word column.

"But - and this is what I'd like you to ask yourselves before our next meeting - why in hell would anybody want to learn to do that?"

© Copyright Craig Vetter