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Guest Post: On Seeing Clearly
November 30, 2007 - 10:46am

[ Recently I asked writer, editor and teacher Dinty W. Moore to join the conversation on teaching creative writing, and it's my pleasure to bring you his response today. Dinty is the author of several books, including Between Panic & Desire (U of Nebraska/American Lives, 2008). He is the newest member of the creative writing faculty at Ohio University. --Churm]


My host, Oronte Churm, offers his usual generous insight in the recent “Of Pedagogy” blog entry, but it is his conclusion that makes the most sense and bothers me at the same time.

“My task as a teacher,” Oronte writes, “… is to help others see for themselves and to use the chosen form to articulate that vision. Seeing clearly takes enormous will, energy, and courage. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do, and therefore one of the most satisfying.”

Yes, yes, yes, and yes. In any art form, the act of seeing, seeing as an individual, and bravely reporting back what is seen, unflinchingly, is always the source of magic and power. Sometimes the result is reported back musically, or in movement, or abstractly, but the principle holds.

Except, here’s my concern:

After sixteen years of pushing that old pedagogical stone up the hill, I sometimes question whether the conventional undergraduate—a nineteen- or twenty-year old American child of the middle class—really wants to see the world clearly. Or if he even has the ability.

Now there are exceptions, surely, but I am talking about the general mass of students, those that want to write, want to be writers, certainly want to have written, but can’t be prodded or cajoled or threatened into saying something other than what they know to be safe, acceptable, and familiar. These are good students, by and large. Many of them have admirable skill at assembling sentences, images, scenes, and metaphors. But the writing reveals nothing, goes nowhere, and deliberately takes no chances.

I know that in many cases these students have lived complex lives and come from thorny family backgrounds. Many have faced physical, emotional, or economic adversity. Yet they want to write about characters they have seen on television, characters that are safely represented elsewhere in our culture, transparent and easily-categorized characters doing things that are merely clever.

Now I’m sounding positively crotchety here, aren’t I? A 50-something, married, once-tenured (though not currently), white male attacking the kids. What sort of teacher does that?

But the truth: when I was an undergraduate, in my first creative writing class, I couldn’t see clearly, or even begin to be objective. My world view was so confused, so uncertain, so tumultuous, that I could barely write two honest sentences back to back. And if I did, by some miracle, write two honest sentences, my first instinct would be to hide them away. Forever.

I’m wondering, ultimately, whether the capacity to stand aside one’s own position and look with clear vision—at one’s own life, one’s own family, one’s own country, one’s own pain, one’s own joy, or one’s own actions—develops in the brain (or soul, or pancreas—I honestly don’t know) sometime following the first two decades of existence. There is a switch, maybe, that must be flipped, perhaps by some chemical modification, some hormonal tipping of the balance, before we can actually begin to discern the contradictions, the mysteries, the hard truths. Any brain chemists out there, reading this? Can we identify the cognitive lever?

The average twenty-year old, by no fault of his own, doesn’t want the hard truth. He still wants to be reassured. He wants to believe that the answer is simple: if we act well, things turn out well; if we act badly, we are punished. It is only when we get older—most of us, that is—that we’re able to understand with any depth just how arbitrary, unfair, mysterious, odd, and slanted is that thing we call reality.

Okay. My rant is concluded. But what of it? If a twenty-year old, as I suggest, isn’t really ready to step out and view the world, write ruthlessly about human nature, sink her literary incisors into the deep inscrutability of who we are and how we got here, then what do we teach them? What are we doing?

I’ve made my living teaching writing to young people for the past sixteen years, and I’m still asking that question.

To my way of thinking, this is probably a good thing.


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