“How long does it have to be?” he asks.
“There are three questions you will never ask me,” I reply. “What’s the date and time,” I motion to the date scribed in red and the analog clock ticking out seconds as our lives pass by. “And, ‘How many sentences in a paragraph?'”
I reference a complete paragraph that’s twelve pages long. Russian lit. They got paid by the word, and they were suffering. Writing was therapy and income. Neither one of those things should be in short supply to authors.
The students become scared. They require an answer. How much do I have to write to get you off my back??!! Students avoid uncertainty, as do we all. I give them a guide.
“A paragraph says what it needs to say. Nothing more.” They stare. “I used to write like that.” I lift the imaginary twelve-page paragraph, heavy in my hand. “I still do, when it serves my purpose. But really, I want you to read what I wrote. Nobody wants to read a twelve page paragraph.” They smile. I see my author friend who “cried at the length” of my writing. He hears this apology through the miles. He smiles, too. Or winces at the irony…I can’t discern. And my friend who called me “Tolstoy.” He is laughing.
“So, how long does my paragraph have to be?” He’s stuck. We sure teach that five-sentence paragraph embedded in five-paragraph essay format pretty solid, Strunk & White be praised.
“It has to say what it has to say. What do you have to say?”
There are two books on writing that I love. The first, Stephen King’s On Writing. Author Amy Tan mentioned to King that no such book existed–there are books about grammar, punctuation, form, and synthesis, but no book about what goes on in the mind of a great writer. Stephen King took the challenge, writing about confidence, hard work, about writing every day, in a room, with the door closed. About writing to one’s “ideal reader,” and editing out the unnecessary. “The road to hell is paved with adjectives,” said King.
The second book is Larry Phillips’ edited book Ernest Hemingway On Writing.
“I can write it like Tolstoi and make the book seem larger, wiser, and all the rest of it. But then I remember that was what I always skipped in Tolstoi…” Hemingway wrote to editor Maxwell Perkins in 1940. Hemingway learned “to distrust adjectives as I would later learn to distrust certain people in certain situations.” He drew up contracts that forbade changes to his manuscripts, stating in a letter to publisher Horace Liveright that “no alterations of words shall be made without my approval” because he wrote “so tight and so hard that the alteration of a word can throw an entire story out of key.”
Yet students sometimes get the idea–or maybe we teach the idea–that longer is better. That simple, concise, and effective isn’t good enough.
“You want people to read your stuff?” I say to Asker of the Question, “Cut it down by half. Make what you say count. And for the sake of all that is holy, try to spell a few words right,” I’m required to add that in.
“I don’t have to write five paragraphs?” he says.
“Do you need to?” I tell a story about my own writing. “I’m a historian. Our motto is ‘…to make a short story longer.’ Nobody reads the stuff I write about history. Maybe six people. Who have six people reading their stuff. We’re writing about dead guys. Make your writing come alive. Teach me. If you don’t teach me, then don’t bother to write it.”
“But you’re the teacher…” The comment trails off. Hemingway addressed this too…It was what he left out that mattered most.
That, for me, is the most difficult part of the journey, the part I’ve barely started. We’re trained to bloviate, pontificate…to beat a dead horse into hamburger. Thus, the “write 500 words about…” or “Give me a million paragraphs on…” Why? How long does it take to say what must be said? And the implication that because I’m the teacher, I’m automatically the hanging judge?
I tell them that we’re all teachers and learners. All readers and writers. All working toward being better human beings, in our fields and out.
We’re no different…we’re simply on different parts of the journey. In this case, our paths have crossed. Hopefully, through our experiences, we’ll help each other to the top of the mountain. Today, over some writing…that is, I hope, shorter than twelve pages…
Nobody wants to read twelve pages…I still have to give feedback on this stuff.