By Honors Professor Michael Gills
I’ve been asked to compose a brief piece on the “importance of writing skills” for the Honors Summer Newsletter, a task that has halted me most of this sunny last morning of May.
Part of the difficulty, for me, is that writing is not a thing–ie., a noun. Writing is an act–a verb. This act is practiced until it becomes craft, and then a discipline, and in turn a way of being, a way of life. One might as well ask, “What is the importance of breath? Why breathe?”
I teach writing as a way of being, as opposed to a produced thing.
Student writers look at me askance that first day when I ask them to rise at 4:30 a.m. tomorrow and each day thereafter, that holy dream-time when the inner-censor is turned off and one might risk making a fool of oneself, as writers must learn to do.
They fidget up front when I insist that they walk straight-away from their happy safe zones, or when I ask them to count the words in the sentences in any piece of writing they’ve ever done and notice they’re the same because that’s a happy, safe place and same, same, same gets old, old, old fast, fast, fast.
They freak when I ask them to disengage spell check and grammar check and any other checks they’ve got on their machine, when I suggest turning off the machine and writing longhand, when I tell them that my best mentor, Fred Chappell, rises every morning at 4:30 to write and that I know this because I sat outside his house in Greensboro, North Carolina for successive mornings and I’ll be damned if his office lights didn’t come on at that exact time every day. Literary critics say he’s the most prolific novelist, poet, essayist on earth and he’s rock star famous in France but all he does is get up to write when everybody else is asleep. My students give me the look–our professor sits outside people’s houses before daylight?
Student writers are taken aback when I ask them to buy a dictionary, the bigger the better, to mark it up like a preacher’s Bible, to look up every word they ever come across that they don’t know—and become aware of all the other words they don’t know that surround the word they didn’t know.
My students eye me with suspicion when I ask them to find out the location in the library stacks of a book on their topic, to go there and disregard the book they were looking for, perusing the five hundred other books in the vicinity, some of which are infinitesimally better than what they thought they were looking for.
Most draw the line when I ask them to turn off their internet, especially when composing. I’ve seen them get the shakes, chortle, start taking short breaths and all of the other traits associated with withdrawal.
All but the hardiest of my student writers suffer shock when I preach that writing is an avenue of inquiry. I am not interested in what they know, but in figuring out what they don’t know, the hidden things they do know, and eventually, write themselves towards. Writers aren’t knowers–they’re folks who ask good questions. Sometimes, I say, you have to write one whole hell of a lot to find out what you have to say.
I tell the story of Paul Crenshaw, one of the rarest student writers who actually did and continues to do everything I’ve asked of him as a writer. Get up at 4:30, I said. Paul gets up at 4:30. Turn off your internet. Paul turned off. Write four hundred pages and throw it away as practice. Paul threw out four hundred pages. Anything I asked, Paul was on it. Then I show them the Norton Anthology of Literature where Paul’s writing is prominent. I show them The New Bedford Anthology, multiple Best American Anthologies, Paul, Paul, Paul. I sometimes mention my books. I tell them that any problem they ever have as a writer, I’ve already had this morning, and yesterday, and the day before. We sit in a circle. I am only one of the circle.
All this does not, at first, sit well with most student writers. After that first class, I can see it in their eyes–that holy not knowing. This is why I teach writing, why I’ve stayed in the classroom these twenty-four years. Because the first day passes, the first week, and there is always–always–that fine moment when fire flies and the student writer makes the leap of faith onto the tightrope, no net below, risking all. Such moments are transformative and the payoffs are profound, because the writer now possesses a vehicle that ushers them full-throttle toward revelation and innovation and truths that the world so needs now at this most perilous moment for our species. And that is important.