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Want to write? Read

MICHAEL SKUBE teaches journalism at North Carolina's Elon University. He is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

Just in time for the start of school, an interviewer on National Public Radio solicited the counsel of an education expert from Santa Monica. The gentleman had nothing particularly new to say -- our schools have too many rules, too little freedom, they stifle creativity -- but his words were catnip to the ears of his interviewer. Inspiring, she called them.

He was not completely wrong, of course. Schooling will always involve inconvenient rules of one kind or another, even as it cultivates the free play of the imagination. Even so, Flannery O’Connor’s mordant reply to a different interviewer came to mind. When O’Connor spoke once at Emory University in Atlanta, she was asked if the schools were discouraging our creative writers.

“They’re not discouraging them enough,” she said.

She looked at the world a bit askance, and she did not suffer fools. But O’Connor, who died in 1964 at only 39, did not live to see “creative” writing elevated to a status that supersedes modest craftsmanship and even waives the requirements of mere competence. Americans are enamored of what they imagine to be “creative.” If you doubt it, open the telephone directory and see how many businesses, from tanning salons to credit counselors, attach the word to their name.

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The schools are no different, even if their stake in creativity is more defensible. And so, in the middle schools and even elementary schools, students scribble away in journals, write skits and sketches, labor over sentences littered with misspelled words (this is called “creative spelling”) and faulty grammar. The aim is not competency in the plain carpentry of prose but self-expression and creativity. It is the Little League of Art. Nothing wrong with self-expression. But it’s worth asking when self-expression devolves into self-spelunking and the preening narcissism evident everywhere on the Internet.

Parents know teenagers can rattle away with ease when instant messaging friends. But for many young people, the expedient baby talk of IM-ing and text-messaging becomes “real” English, as natural as conversation and often a preferred substitute.

Ask them to write straightforward English and you would think it was a second language, even for kids whose ancestors have been here generations. Sentence structure, punctuation, the parts of speech -- they are almost completely unfamiliar with any of it. Wanting to sound as if they are someone they are not, college students invariably button their verbal collars, straighten their ties and turn out sentences stiff as starched shirts.

They know it’s forced and hollow -- they will tell you so. The words are not their words, consciously chosen to express a thought or crystallize an image; they are mere guesses, made in the hope it sounds OK. It’s the only writing they know, unless they’re IM-ing or text-messaging.

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Without themselves to write about, they are at the mercy of teachers who have told them this leaden language is better. It makes them sound “more intelligent” to prefer the long sentence to the short sentence and the word they don’t quite understand to the word everyone understands.

I have an exercise I ask college sophomores to do. I give them a piece written by E.B. White, a name likely to ring no bells unless you remind them that someone probably read “Charlotte’s Web” to them when they were children. (“Oh yeah,” they’ll say, dredging the title up from the vague recesses of memory. “I remember that book.”)

The piece is not one of the essays that earned White a lasting place in American letters. It’s an introduction to a collection of gardening articles his late wife, Katharine S. White, had written for the New Yorker. The first several pages are explanatory background -- not lyrical writing, but necessary. Read them quickly, I say, but get a sense of what he was doing and why. And then go to the last page. There White compresses an elegy into two understated paragraphs, the second of which reads:

“Armed with a diagram and a clipboard, Katharine would get into a shabby old Brooks raincoat much too long for her, put on a little round wool hat, pull on a pair of overshoes, and proceed to the director’s chair -- a folding canvas thing -- that had been placed for her at the edge of the plot. There she would sit, hour after hour, in the wind and the weather, while Henry Allen produced dozens of brown paper packages of new bulbs and a basketful of old ones, ready for the intricate interment. As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance -- the small, hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.”

We talk about the simplicity of the words (“Cut those words, and they bleed,” Emerson said of Thoreau), about physical detail that lets a reader see (“the small, hunched-over figure”), about cadence and rhythm, mostly about the resonance in the choice of words, especially those last four. The emotion needs no exclamation marks, no hyperventilation. It’s there, and the reader knows it.

This is not what is ordinarily called “creative” writing. It’s just highly accomplished writing, and every time I’ve asked students to read this, they finish it with a hush. They don’t even notice that a couple of those sentences are quite long -- but under the writer’s control all the way.

“I wish I could write like that,” more than one student has told me, her tone betraying what she wished she had been exposed to. “I do too,” I say. “But you learn to write well by reading good writing. And by emulating. It’s not too late to start.”

And just think: Younger students have an even better head start. They need only be exposed to possibilities in things outside themselves. The creative spirit, if it’s there, will find the expression it needs.

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