• Arnie Bernstein

Writers of the World: Ignite! You have nothing to lose but your constraints

The Inflexible Paradigm

Perhaps the biggest problem I run into as a writing teacher is having to detach students from the rules inflicted on them in high school English. The dictates are, more or less, are as follows: 1. Open with an “attention getter” or “thesis statement.” Then follow with the points that will unfold in your paper like an accordion churning out “Lady of Spain.” 2. Explain your points in 5 to 7 paragraphs. A paragraph should have between 4 to 7 sentences maximum. 3. Sentences should be no longer than 10 to 12 words. 4. Conclude your essay by restating the thesis. And as a bonus: Never use the pronouns “I,” me,” or “mine.” At the beginning of every writing workshop series or course semester, I have the students bark out these indoctrinations. I scribble the rules on a piece of paper. When I’m done, I read over the list. Next, I rip the sheet into scraps, spit on them, throw the pieces on the floor, and jump on the pile. This goes over well in an online Zoom session but it’s even better in a real-life classroom, where I compound the absurdity whilst wearing my teacher uniform of jacket and tie.

Annihilating the Paradigm!

“The formula” as taught is just that: a formula. That’s not how writing should be. Writing is an individualistic thing, not a mathematical problem solved with a fixed answer. Sure, we’re all using the same basic tools of words and grammar to create something both engaging and interesting. Just as a Frank Lloyd Wright design has a personality different from something out of the Bauhaus school or a playtime cardboard box house, the same elements of design and construction must be used. But it’s how we put together our words that make the difference. I particularly loathe the “restate the thesis” rule. What I find is that when students “restate the thesis” they take the words used in the “attention getter” or “thesis statement,” shuffle them about like proverbial deck chairs, and then precede the conclusion sentence with something along the lines of “Thus” or “So” or the unwieldy “It is now clearly evident that…” I don’t plead innocent to these crimes of un-creativity. I was taught the same rules in high school. I shuffled the deck chairs of thesis and concluding statement, counted the words in my sentences, and watched how many paragraphs I used. And so on through the generations. Our innate capacity to build stories is flattened into a piece of particleboard. Now, as both writer and writing teacher, my job is to smash the paradigm. I’m not suggesting that we make words mean whatever we want, nor should grammar be knocked around willy nilly (a technical term). If anything, I demand we adhere to these rules. But is the precise equation of words, sentences, and paragraphs foisted on us—what I call the Writing Laws of Gravity—must be destroyed. They are stifling, holding back our natural trait of unleashing creativity. We are born storytellers. Have you ever caught a five-year-old in a lie? The tales they spin as cover stories can be delightful, humorous, offbeat, and outrageous. Nothing is reigned in when they offer explanations.

Repealing the Law of Gravity

To create is to let go. How often have we stared at a page waiting for the muse to strike us? It happens to everyone, from fresh-faced students to wizened hacks like me. We wait for the right word to arrive so the process can begin. And the elusive term is always our Godot. It’s like the axiom attributed to sportswriter Red Smith: “Writing is easy. Just sit in front of a typewriter, open a vein, and bleed.”

When creating material, we need to be wild, we need to be verbal heretics. We have to create an unholy mess. Good writing is rewriting but before we get to the rewriting phase, we need to create a draft. Writing prompts are a great way to kickstart the process. I like to forgo logic, reason, and above all, Writing Laws of Gravity. One method is to write down the words “I remember.” Then write what you remember. That’s it. If you get stuck, write down “I remember” again and write down what else you remember. There’s no wrong way to do this. You can “I remember” a list, disjointed paragraphs, incomplete sentences, or whatever. Don’t let grammar or spelling interfere with the process. Let the writing tell you where it wants to go and don’t stop. It will find its path. You never know what you’ll conjure up. During my grad school years at the Columbia College-Chicago, my “I remembers” often featured Frank Sinatra. I had him battling space aliens, transforming into a mermaid for undersea adventures, holding court at King Arthur’s Trapezoid Table, or go for madcap nights on the town accompanied by an assistant who carried Mr. Sinatra’s hairpieces, a lackey I named “Quentin.”

Another favorite writing prompt is a gleeful jump from standing ground to flight through the stratosphere: “If you could pick a number between one and ten, what would be your favorite color of the alphabet?” Another good prompt is burnished into our collective memory banks: “Once upon a time…” So repeal your personal Writing Laws of Gravity. Be daring, be wild, be adventurous. Don’t shuffle the deck chairs of your thesis: smash them into bits with a croquet mallet, kick them around, and see something new. Then, have your fingers run wild with pen or keyboard and let them take you to wherever the words want to soar.

For more writing tips connect with me on Twitter @RealArnieB

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Copyright 2021 Arnie Bernstein

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