On Writing and Teaching Better, and the Colonization of Language

The Idea: Some advice from Derrick Jensen on writing (fiction and other things) and teaching (writing and other things), and a brief discussion about the colonization of language.
Author Derrick Jensen teaches writing, and his new book Walking on Water has some useful lessons for both writers and teachers.

Some of his advice for writers (especially writers of fiction):

  • Don’t be boring — all good writing has passion; make your writing as intense as if it were your last utterance
  • Show, don’t tell — use the words and actions of the characters in the story to convey how they feel and what they’re thinking
  • Provide specific details, in easy-to-follow order, to transport the reader so they’re there
  • Do your research
  • Be courageous — challenge established ‘rules’ and prejudices
  • Make sure your writing answers an important question
  • If it hurts, you’re doing it wrong
  • Spend more time thinking than writing
  • Flush out your prejudices and get them out of your writing — you’ll never convince anyone else if you let them out onto your page
  • Read and study great writing
  • Make sure your stories include choices and transformation, and that these are credible
  • Make every word count
  • Mean something — give your reader a reason to care about your characters
  • And show you care about them yourself
  • Be clear — words are easy to misunderstand
  • Writing dialogue is like “putting just enough stones in a stream to cross it without getting your feet wet” (authentic, but much sparer and less redundant than ‘real’ conversation)
  • What you write about, and how well, is a function of knowing and conveying who you are, what you love and what you want; if you don’t know these things, find out

Some of his advice for teachers (especially teachers of writing):

  • Your most valuable teaching will be one-on-one, e.g. working with a student to make one piece sparkle (“show, don’t tell” applies to teachers, too)
  • Tell your students the six things you wish you’d been told when you were a student: that it’s OK to daydream; that their personal, tumultuous life will get better; that they should be bold and always follow their heart; that the older generation is sorry for ruining the Earth we are leaving for them; that our culture is crazy; and that it’s OK not to get a job, and to spend your life just finding out who you are
  • “Love your students into being what they are”
  • As an editor, help the writer find where their heart is, and then help them get there
  • To teach dialogue, provide an exercise where the story, the setting, the situation etc. must be brought out using only natural dialogue (no descriptions or ‘thought ballooons’ allowed)
  • Have at least ten times as many writing exercises as you would have time for, because many of the exercises you plan won’t work with every class
  • To help students come to grips with who they are, provide a perspective exercise where someone fond of each student is asked to write the student’s obituary — how, and for what, they would be remembered if they died tomorrow (I think this is an awesome idea)
  • Teaching anything, even writing, is fundamentally about teaching people to be free, and then teaching them to be responsible — both lessons are revolutionary and counter to everything the education system stands for, so if you dare do this, be prepared for push-back from The Man
The job of words is to direct us toward experience, to round out experience, to facilitate experience, and to give us ways to share at least pale shadows of that experience with those we love. And the job of words is to help us learn to be — and act — human.

This advice is quite consistent with the advice of other writers (Barthelme, Leonard, Orwell, Lamott) I’ve discussed on these pages. I find it interesting that, at least in fiction, male and female writers offer very similar advice (compare Anne Lamott’s advice to Jensen’s). If we acknowledge (and I do) that human languages (vocabulary, structure, syntax and semantics) have been primarily colonized by males, I would have expected women to offer workarounds that would help other woman writers repatriate (rematriate?) language to a more poetic, grounded landscape that women could use more effectively and relate to better. Any speculation on why that has not (at least not obviously) happened? Is this too Sisyphan a task to accomplish in a mere few centuries?

As with all Jensen’s books, there are some amazing quotes in this one. Here are my five favourites:

The only learning which significantly influences behaviour is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning. As soon as an individual tries to communicate such experience directly, often with a quite natural enthusiasm, it becomes teaching, and its results are either unimportant or damaging. (Carl Rogers)

Modern schools and universities push students into habits of depersonalized learning, alienation from nature and sexuality, obedience to hierarchy, fear of authority, self-objectification, and chilling competitiveness — precisely the character traits needed to maintain an industrial social system that is utterly out of touch with nature, sexuality and real human needs. (Arthur Evans)

Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. (Helen Keller)

School is like the army or jail. Once you’re in, you may have all kinds of problems, but freedom isn’t one of them. (Jerry Farber)

Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now. (Goethe)

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7 Responses to On Writing and Teaching Better, and the Colonization of Language

  1. Emily says:

    Reading Walking on Water last summer was a first step leading to an independent study course I’m taking now on alternatives to schooling. See my course blog here.I’ve always envied Jensen’s enthusiasm for writing; his easy ability to write and write and write. I’m a member of his reading club and he knocks out the equivalent of two lengthy books per year, plus stories and interviews. The experience of writing is like pulling teeth for me… My head is swimming with ideas and musings and I love conversation, but getting it down in printed word is a pain in the ass. Jensen writes, “If it hurts, you’re doing it wrong” – obviously I’m doing something wrong – lol.

  2. dave davison says:

    Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now. (Goethe)Dave I’ve been missing your blog for a few days – but this quote from Goethe deserves another “Rest not! Life is sweeping by; go and dare before you die.Something mighty and sublime, leave behind to conquer time.”Quoted on page 259 of a great biography by Eric Enno Tamm – entitled Beyond the Outer Shores – the Untold Odyssey of Ed Ricketts – the pioneering ecologist who inspired John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell.Amazon.com: Books: Beyond the Outer Shores: The Untold Odyssey of Ed Ricketts, the Pioneering Ecologist Who Inspired John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell

  3. lugon says:

    Hmm … THANKS, Dave.I … I’ll do my thinking before writing … This is what’s on my mind now: there’s this “peak oil” website in Spanish. They cry “wolf coming” but don’t seem to do anything else … Ok, I’ll find my own wisdom.This is what happens when you remind people of their own passions. :-)

  4. David Pratt says:

    Thanks Dave, for another great bit of guiding light. I’ll return to this post often. It even inspired a poem from me… titled “Forever.” You can see it at Solar Mart.

  5. shari says:

    Another fabulous post to mull over. There’s a lot here to think about. Thanks for pulling these thoughts together.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Thank you all. I’m really just regurgitating Derrick’s wisdom here, along with what Rayne and Aleah have taught me about the colonization of language. I’m really intrigued about the possibility of un-colonizing language, or, more likely, inventing new languages, semantics and/or syntaxes that are less constrained by a ‘civilized’ and male worldview.

  7. Pearl says:

    Interesting post. I have come back to your site a few times and am adding it to my regular rounds.

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