My Most Important Writing Lesson

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Back in the monkey days, when Fs were real and our local university was still respected as a school, I took what may have been called English 101, a writing class with a widely dreaded three hour written composition for a final. Since I had long been praised for my writing, I was looking forward to it.

A Mr. Parks walked in with his greasy blond hair, crooked horn rimmed glasses, sandals and miss-matched socks, and announced that they couldn’t find a PhD., so he was teaching for the quarter.

A wave of groans passed through the class.

“Too bad,” he said. “See this book? Turn to page thirty-six.” We read a short story to ourselves and then discussed it as he paced about, white froth gathering at the corners of his mouth.

The next day we had an essay to write before we left.images

On the following day, he handed out a fistful of F papers and two Ds. There were no higher grades. I had one of the D papers. The kids from ‘way up in Chicago howled with indignation. Their daddies would see that he was fired.

“I got a D,” I said.

“Too bad.”

“But I don’t ever get grades like that…”

“Time you did,” he said.

“But most of my paper’s marked out with red ink…”

Ivy“That’s because it stinks,” he said. “Look. If you want to fix it, come to my office before the day’s over.”

I showed up and stood in line with the rest of the class.

When I stepped into his office, he had his feet on his desk, watching me have a seat.

“So what’s wrong with it?” I said as I read aloud a few lines.

“I already told you. It stinks.”

“But doesn’t this sound…?”

“Do you think anyone gives a shit about your choice of words or your specially chosen 2730510797_1a5b5af433_zphrases?” he said, tossing the paper back at me. “Look. The first paragraph. What are you trying to say?”

I started to read the first line.

“No! Just look at me and tell me about what’s in the first paragraph.”

“Well…” I said, “Nancy was in a state of bliss because she was naive?”

“Good!” he said. “That’s exactly what you should have written. “Now I’ve got Miss What’s Her Face standing in the doorway all anxious, with a slew of people behind her.”

TomI ended up with an A for the quarter, and came away knowing that it’s not the words you like which makes your writing good, but the words you have no problem throwing away.

 

Tom Phipps

Live What You Write

Back when I was an aspiring botany major, a heavyweight English student I knew showed up at my flat with a fifth of Jack Daniels to live the life of a writer, as he put it. He mentioned Faulkner. He made Hemingway watching a bullfight in Spain or sitting outdoors in a cafe along the Seine River, sipping wine with a crowd timthumbof angry young writers sound like a good thing. I don’t know what became of him. I turned out to be a writer. Maybe he’s counting tree rings.

If he understood what he was telling me, he did have a point. You do need to be familiar enough with what you are discussing in order to do a good job of writing about it. One would think that paris4your words will be best chosen when you are discussing elephants if you have ridden one. And it is much easier to make walking across freshly ploughed ground in your bare feet amongst the scattered blackbirds come to life for your readers if you’ve actually done it.

So how do you do such a thing if you are writing fantasy? How do you make unicorns, Elves and dragons come to life? Well, unicorns are very much like horses, except for the narwhal-like horn, so we can talk about them in terms of the horses which we’ve ridden. We can talk about their horn waving about above their feed boxes as they nibble up the last of their oats. We can talk about the Elf with his insides shaken to a jelly of soreness, from an afternoon’s frantic ride. And we can talk about a mob of dragons settling onto a sandbar in the dusk, as each one pauses to sort through the feathers of his wings before giving himself a thorough shake, if we have walked along a river’s sands at sunset and have indeed spent an afternoon in the desert mountains, watching a flock of buzzards come circling in to land on their customary rocks.

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Just how would you make an imaginary creature come to life for the readers you are trying to engage and entertain? Wouldn’t you need to draw upon similar things which you’ve actually seen? What do you think? We’d like to know.

 

Tom Phipps