I wasn’t planning on teaching writing to my kids. I taught undergraduate writing at Boston University, and the experience convinced me that you can’t teach people to be good writers. People who love to write, write a lot and almost always improve. People who don’t write a lot never improve.
Also, I have good reason to think that we are nearing the end of long-form writing in the history of literature. Mostly because people don’t read it. A novel that sells 10,000 copies is a huge success. Compared to a successful online audience, that’s nothing. So people are reading, but they are reading different ways, mostly online. Just like people are watching television shows, but they are watching different ways, mostly binging on Netflix.
Then I found out my son is going to have to write an essay for the SAT. Clearly he will need to be taught how to do that. It’s a specific form with specific expectations.
I am terrible at test-taking and terrible at following rules, so I hired a fancy SAT writing tutor from NYC. She tutors a lot of kids at Saint Ann’s, which is a school that is super-hard to get into, and caters to parents who have alternative ideas for education but still want a top-tier school’s seal of approval for their kid. That sounds like me, I guess. I say that reluctantly. But if I didn’t hate school so much, that would be me.
The tutor is $165/hour. Each time I paid it I told myself it’s worth the peace of mind that he’s learning and I don’t have to teach him. After all, I’m teaching him a lot right now. And I’m tired.
First, the tutor wanted to assign him books. But I am doing a great job of finding typical high school reading books that he likes reading. And it’s fun. I love those books. So I told her that I’m choosing the books.
Then she starting teaching him the elements of literature. Plot came naturally to him. Next was character development and he got stuck. For three weeks they worked on character development. And then I remembered all the math/science kids I knew who read only science fiction.
Science fiction is very heavy on plot. That’s why my son is so good at plot. Science fiction presents a new set of rules for the world and then tells a classic plot line (though really, all plot lines are classic) using the new rules.
Character development is hard for kids who read science fiction. So I fired the tutor and I sat down to read one of my son’s books so I could teach him character development in terms of a book he liked reading. But I couldn’t bear to read science fiction. I hate it. I like character-driven books, not plot-driven.
So I looked around for character-driven books my son would like. I am obsessed with Holocaust books. So I suggested Night, by Elie Wiesel. The plot is: there’s a boy in a concentration camp; it’s all character development.
My son said,”I’m not reading any more holocaust books. They’re all the same.”
I took the opportunity to tell him the difference between plot and character development. In the context of “here is why you are sick of Holocaust books” he immediately understood character development.
So I gave him a rule: Suffering in a story is always about character development.
Then I decided to try having him read short stories instead of novels, so he could read character-driven writing without committing to 200+ pages. I gave him Cathedral by Raymond Carver.
He said, “Mom. You gave me a story where the only thing that happens is people eat a meal together.”
We talked about the meal and he pointed out I chose a story about people using drugs. (I had forgotten they get high after dinner.)
I asked, “How do you know what the characters care about?”
He said, “From what they talk about.”
I explained how when characters eat a meal together, it’s a writer’s excuse to have them talk so the reader can learn about the characters.
The rule: Eating a meal is always about character development.
Next thing I saw him reading was the Best of Craigslist. Have you ever read it? Anyone who finds a particularly hilarious ad can flag it. The Best of Craigslist captures all those, and the category became so so popular that now people write specifically to try and make the list. So I snuggled up to my son on the sofa and read the ones he thought were really funny.
The first one he showed me is a “looking for a roommate” ad. The ad said “I’m white and weigh 7000 tons.” And “The rent is steep because they charge me every day.” And it turns out the guy lives on a ship docked in Seattle.
Then he showed me one titled, No More Sex with Fruit. It’s about a guy who is trying to stop having sex with fruit and in the process tries sex with peanut butter. (So it’s in the “Free” section of Craigslist in case you’re wondering.)
I said to my son, “What’s the plot?”
My son jumped up off the sofa, complaining, “What? I’m not doing essay writing now. We’re reading Craigslist!
But then he gave an answer: “The guy’s girlfriend liked sex with fruit so he started liking it, then she dumped him and he wants to stop thinking about her so he wants to stop having sex with fruit.”
I said, “What do you know about the guy?”
Answer: “He’s sad about the girlfriend. He’s having a hard time not having sex with food.”
“Right. He’s struggling to have the self-discipline he wants for his life. You learn about people through their struggles.”
“Like you’re struggling to get me ready for the SAT by talking to me about sex with fruit.”
“Yeah. Right. I’m obsessed with helping you learn what you want to learn.”
“Okay,” he said. “I get two cookies for putting up with this conversation.”
“Wait! I said.
Another rule: Sex in literature is always about character development.
I tell him, “There’s no point in writing about sex unless you learn something about the character. Except porn. If there’s sex with no character development then it’s porn.”
Now I see how to teach the elements of literature using anything my son likes to read that I am willing to read. You don’t need classic literature. You don’t need essay writing. You can write an essay about anything you understand. And you can understand anything about literature if you know the rules.