We’re Doing It Wrong, E.L. Doctorow

August 5, 2015 — Leave a comment

There is a gap between writing for school and authentic writing.

Just how big is that gap? If you consider an NPR interview with E.L. Doctorow that was recently replayed on the airwaves, the gap is a chasm….nay, an unmeasurable abyss.

What Doctorow said about his approach to the writing process, leads to only one conclusion about the teaching of writing:

We’re doing it wrong.

Doctorow’s original interview was replayed after his death on July 21st, 2015. His initials E.L. stood for Edgar Lawrence, and he was noted for his work with historical fiction including  Ragtime (1975), Billy Bathgate (1989), and The March (2005).

E.L. Doctorow: American historical fiction writer, 1931-2015

E.L. Doctorow: American historical fiction writer, 1931-2015

The NPR broadcast (7/22/15) was created from a collection of interviews from their archives. In one exchange with Scott Simon, Doctorow had responded to a question about his writing process by saying,

DOCTOROW: The ideal way to get involved in this sort of work is to write in order to find out what you’re writing. You don’t start with an outline and a plan.

Maybe you can feel the shudder of writing teachers everywhere, especially those insist that students first draft an outline or use a five paragraph template for any piece of writing. Of course, Doctorow was writing in the narrative format, where his plan started with the use of particularly “vocative images” to begin his stories:

And in this case, it’s the first line in the book where Andrew’s saying I can tell you what I’m about to tell you, but it’s not pretty. And suddenly you find yourself with your character.

The narrative genre may lend itself to Doctorow’s approach of “finding yourself with your character,” but writing in schools, especially at the secondary level, is in the expository/informational or persuasive genres. The Common Core State Standards have reinforced very deliberate borders between these genres. But Doctorow confounds these boundaries, incorporating factual information into his historical imaginings that play with the “myth of history” as an end product.

In a 2008 interview with George Plimpton published in the Paris Review (“The Art of Fiction, No.94″), Doctorow boasted about his use of history:

So to be irreverent to myth, to play with it, let in some light and air, to try to combust it back into history, is to risk being seen as someone who distorts truth.

History teachers may get sidetracked with Doctorow’s argument that history is a battlefield, “constantly being fought over because the past controls the present.” Yet, in taking the risks in “letting in light and air” to history,  Doctorow’s created another truth, a truth that did not require writing from his own experiences:

Writing teachers invariably tell students, Write about what you know. That’s, of course, what you have to do, but on the other hand, how do you know what you know until you’ve written it? Writing is knowing.

Again, there may be a palpable shudder from writing teachers who have used “writing from your experience” as a mantra.

Analysis of literature was another area that Doctorow explained to NPR’s Steve Inskeep (in archived interviews) that almost kept him from being a writer:

That kind of analytical action of the mind is not the way you work when you write. You bring things together, you synthesize, you connect things that have had no previous connection when you write. So, all in all, as valuable as my [analysis] training was, it took me through language in the wrong direction.

Apparently, all those literary essays assigned by English teachers could be stifling this next generation of writers.

In making the connection between reading and writing, however, Doctorow described his own experience and this would win approval from teachers:

 I was reading constantly everything I could get my hands on. And, you know, at that age, something else happens if you’re going to be a writer. You’re reading for the excitement of it and to find out what happens next, just racing along. And then another little line of inquiry comes into your head. You say, well, how is this done?

So, what can writing teachers learn from one of America’s most celebrated novelists? What advice might they consider in writing instruction?

  1. Students should not limit themselves to write from experience;
  2. In narratives, students should not use an outline as they find the story through a character instead;
  3. Students should know that history is flexible enough for play, and for letting in  “air and light”;
  4. Analysis essays can take writers in the wrong direction;
  5. To be writers, students must read;
  6. Writing is knowing.

Whether teachers heed the advice of Doctorow from these interviews may not matter, as it is acknowledged that each writer differs in approach and style. Without question, however, the writing process for Doctorow flies in the face of any prescribed writing instruction. As he explained to Inskeep:

I seem to appreciate quiet. And when I’m writing I like to seal everything off and face the wall and not to look outside the window so that the only way out is through the sentences.

In the bell-to-bell day of today’s classroom, with a constant stream of interruptions during timed essay writing or writing on demand, we are doing it wrong.
It is unlikely that a student writer will find the quiet that Doctorow appreciated.
There is no blank wall.

Students will have to find their own way out of the narrative through sentences, but teachers should try to give them the time and space to let that happen.

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