In Want of Style: Teaching Writing and Talking Schop

The result of all this is that thoughts put on paper are nothing more than footsteps in the sand: you see the way the man has gone, but to know what he saw on his walk, you want his eyes.

~A. Schopenhauer, ‘On Books and Reading’ (an online version of which can be found here)

Teaching writing horrendously frustrates — especially when I am unsure how I learnt to do any of this, if I learnt at all.  While I can’t help beaming as I lead these pups along to the home away from home of the bibliophile, I wonder if I ‘ve done more than show where the library lies.  While I question to what extent I truly want these students gazing through my eyes, I particularly feel the strain of Schopenhauer’s next lines:

There is no quality of style that can be gained by reading writers who possess it… But if these qualities are already in us, exist, that is to say, potentially, we can call them forth and bring them to consciousness; we can learn the purposes to which they can be put; we can be strengthened in our inclination to use them, or get courage to do so; we can judge by examples the effect of applying them, and so acquire the correct use of them; and of course it is only when we have arrived at that point that we actually possess these qualities.  The only way in which reading can form style is by teaching us the use to which we can put our own natural gifts.

~ibidem, emphasis mine

Autobiographically, how else do I understand anything, I can see this.  Until I was willing to stop admiring words or imagery and try to ‘look along’, as per an essay of C.S. Lewis’ I have largely forgotten, at what the author was seeing I could write nothing worth my own reading.  Funny that there is no way for me to judge my own reading but only by output — by what thoughts can be born onto the page and borne by them.  The same for my students — I only know the qualities of their reading by their writing much as we detect life by looking for movement (as Schopenhauer relates of Aristotle).

My own reading was dead for a long time, not merely because of the faults in my writing.  It was n’t until I found something worth reading, Till We Have Faces is my preferred culprit, until I felt life and thus a renewed movement that I could want to wield these shoddy limbs; not till I scratched out poorly enough to be told the lacks of quality in my work that any chance of dis-covering such ‘inclinations’ as A.S. speaks of.  Once I needed to hear, I had to learn to ask how to hear better, ask to go over it again — needed to speak until I did n’t cringe at the dust in my throat anymore.

The courage to find courage, it seems, may come later for my students.  I almost feel they need to be starved of reading, of speaking, of writing until they will learn to listen — for what I ‘m not allowed to know, or it is n’t worth listening for.  And then, then perhaps they can begin to scrawl in the dirt, shout silence to passersby, and follow the sight lines not the footsteps.  Reading cannot lend form to style until style fails to matter — until I need to commune deeply with something rather than starve, as beggar or welcomed guest.  And such a thing can surely not be inherited or mimicked; only lived.

Pebbles in the revered boots of authors preserved in rows await discovery, but one must yet be weary enough to travel.  We too shall be forgotten.

One final note, lest I forget the cheer of trying to summarize Orwell or am misinterpreted for being too optimistic:

Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are.

~George Orwell, ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’ (1946) [also by way of:]


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