Writers on Writing #9: Tom Rich
I Really Have No Idea
I have a confession to make, and I hope my boss doesn’t read it: I really have no idea what I’m doing most days.
Man, does it feel good to say that one publicly.
Let me elaborate.
I teach composition at a two-year college in the Midwest. Five days a week, I get up in front of students and teach them how to compose better essays. I explain structure, organization, and citation styles; occasionally, I hold forth on the rules of grammar. If I wanted to be more honest with them, though, I’d end every lesson by saying “however, it is entirely possible that none of that was true.”
If I wanted to be completely honest, on the first day I would say this: “I don’t understand the process any better than you do. I don’t know how or why it works when it works, and I don’t know what makes it not work when it doesn’t. I personally use virtually none of the techniques and tricks I’m going to explain, and never have. I only vaguely understand the forces that put me in front of you.” Then I would dismiss the class for the semester.
Of course, that’s a little overblown; we’re talking about freshman essays, not Moby-Dick. But I can only tell them what’s going wrong, and sometimes how to fix it; even if I’d been there when they wrote it, even if I’d been them as they wrote it, I couldn’t tell them why it happened. In that very important respect, they and I are on the same page. It’s not quite a case of the blind leading the blind, but the guide certainly has cataracts.
This position of almost complete ignorance extends far beyond the subject at hand. A colleague and I draw our students from the same pool. She gets a band of borderline sociopaths who harass her at every turn; the worst that can be said of mine is that a few may have early-stage narcolepsy. Why? Hell if I know. Jen asked me to write this post; she must think I have something to say. But I approach story writing virtually identically to five years ago, when I first took one of Jen’s classes: sure, sometimes I write plot points on notecards or play with colored markers while I revise, but it still boils down to “start writing and hope for the best.” Apparently it works. Not a clue why.
According to the margins of my composition handbook, E.L. Doctorow once said that “writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I guess that’s true except that I’m pretty sure my headlights are burnt out and that “make the whole trip” just means “drive until you run out of gas, then continue on foot with a flashlight.”
I keep writing, even though I don’t understand it: keep typing it up, keep scribbling down ideas while my students are working on some exercise, keep sending stories to friends for feedback and journal editors for judgment. The fact is, I doubt I or anyone else will ever really understand the creative process. But the world of the story offers the vague, distant possibility of understanding: every time you set off, there’s the hope that the sun will rise and burn off the fog and reveal the whole picture. Most of the time, of course, you wind up stumbling around in the dark until your flashlight runs out of batteries, and then the metaphor falls apart and you go to buy eggs or whatever. It’s a sliver of a fragment of a possibility, but that’s more than the real world gives us.
At least, that’s how I see it. It’s entirely possible I’m wrong; I really have no idea what I’m doing, most days.