And I especially would like to thank my five teachers -- Sweeney, Shank, Kelleher, Lowell and Berman -- who taught me everything I know about writing, which is zip, but would have been zip-minus-five had not those intrepid adventurers -- whose very names read like the East Side Kids -- had not those fearless five aces believed that with enough spikes and pick axes they could chip through to this brain of mine, the great stone brain, and make it stir, ever so slightly, in the direction of producing one clean, clear English sentence.
They taught me: 1) to be clever; 2) to be precise; 3) not to be precise; 4) not to be clever. I carry them with me these days, as once again I turn my hand to the teaching of writing: one class, one term, no sweat. Of course, I'm lying about the sweat. How could I have forgotten that teaching is work? I mean, if you can call what I do "work"; I mean, in the sense of physics -- work being that in which something is moved.
What moves in my class is paper; that and my legs, as I cross them first to the left, then to the right, My hands clasp and unclasp as well. My head moves up and down. This is a seminar, highly civilized. I sit like the ayatollah, dispensing irrational messages.
Fortunately, virtue knows no moral limits, so I say what I please. Harvard students are used to priests. They do not laugh in my face as I tell them how to write. How to write. I hear me say such a thing even in the safety of my chair, and it sounds shameful, bizarre. Who are you to be teaching anyone how to write? Who are you to be teaching? Who are you? The questions dissolve to the sound of whips. Shall I beat myself like a donkey?
Oh, you're not so bad. You're teaching them something.
Did you know that the teaching of writing is the cat's meow nowadays? I'm talking Big Bucks. Expository writing. Poetry writring. How to write a short story. How to write a note. The country heaves with seminars -- wood-walled rooms abuzz with what-ifs and when-dos. O Smith. O Corona. Nobody teaches the stuff in college, says the graduate school. Nobody teaches the stuff in high school, says the college. Nobody teaches the stuff in grade school, says the high school. And the grade school, desperate for scapegoats, blames the womb -- while deep in my deceitful heart I believe that the womb really is where writing is taught, among the quiet tubes.
What, then, can I possibly teach them?
1) To be clever. Here. Take a mint. Write down what it tastes like. That's what I said. Write it down. Write the taste. Writing is freedom.
2) To be precise. Concentrate on every word. Yes, every last one. What would this passage be like without the key word? Replace the missing word with one of your own. Be careful. Writing is specific.
3) Not to be precise. Don't be too careful. Don't lose hold of the truth. You can be accurate and all wet. Writing is general.
4) Not to be clever. Not so clever, anyway, that the only thing you do is dazzle. Beware of puns; they must work on every side. Eschew allusions if they kill the point. Writing is restraint.
Words fill the room like water from a main. Soon we may drown in words -- these students with their trusting stares, along with their teacher, guilty as sin, knowing (as they also know, though all are too polite to say) that if they are ever to be good, it will come of something he cannot give them, something wholly of their own that shrieks threats at them from hallways, makes obscene phone calls in the middle of the night, breaks in through the basement and rattles the china. I promise you that success will come if you persevere. I promise you no such thing.
I can only tell you that you write to be read. And the reader for whom you write is cranky, churlish, sleepy, out of sorts; he's down on his luck, knows death, pities no one. Unless you touch that reader where he hurts, you are not writing. And you'll know when you have touched him, because you will have felt the hurt yourself, buckled over like a hinge, like a book.
Oh, I suppose I could also tell you that writing is hell. But you're not blind.