The Reach to Writing, and Teaching
Lou Ureneck remembers how he got on the path
I got a C-minus on my first paper in freshman English in college. The professor’s comments made it clear that the grade was an act of charity.
The gap between my work as a writer and his standards as a teacher yawned as broadly and hopelessly as some river gorge. We could hardly see each other across the chasm. The assignment was to analyze a short story by Flannery O’Connor, and I could make no sense of it — or at least none of the kind of sense that makes a term paper.
I passed the class through force of sheer earnestness and a degree of effort that inspires a teacher’s pity.
The next year, I took a second required writing course. Over 13 weeks, the teacher taught us how to build a piece of writing from a set of exercises that we linked like railroad cars into a final paper. Mine was about a ferryboat ride across the Delaware Bay that tried to convey something about the power of passages. I was 18 years old, there was trouble at home, and I was feeling the pressures and possibilities of movement and change.
Looking back, I can see that the class writing exercises were miniature studies in description, exposition, and narration. I discovered that writing was something that I could learn. Its mysteries could be unlocked through an understanding of technique. I thoroughly enjoyed the task of making sentences that snatched and then conveyed the ideas, feelings, and images that were slopping around inside of me like water in a bucket.
I got an A in the class, and I have been fascinated by the act and teaching of writing ever since.
My sophomore year writing teacher (Alan Rose, where are you?) gave me one of the greatest gifts of my life. I don’t exaggerate when I say it ranks up there with motherly love.
“Empowerment’’ is an overused word, but it is the word that describes what I gained in Mr. Rose’s class. I learned that the observations, sensations, thoughts, and experiences of my life had value — as much value as, or even more than, scoring a touchdown or owning something expensive — if I could find ways to communicate what I saw and felt.
I could use this gift, this encouragement to write, to deepen my appreciation of aspects of the world that I found remarkable or beautiful by reliving them in language. It gave me the pleasure (as the poet Robert Pinsky, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English, has put it) of attempting something difficult. It set before me the aspiration toward mastery.
It also gave me a livelihood. In the third week of the course at the University of New Hampshire, Mr. Rose walked me across the hall to meet the English department chairman, Donald Murray, who was advisor to the student newspaper. That was almost 40 years ago.
I’m in a position now to pass along the gift of encouragement. This is one of those marvelous life turns that seems too good to be true. Students who come to me mostly want to be journalists. They are drawn by the excitement of the news, the chance to do work that matters, and the urge to write. I love them for wanting to be reporters.
As I work with them, I can’t help but think that there are many others who deserve this gift of writing. I think of young people who are not in college because they lack money or encouragement. It’s the people in the worst circumstances who would most benefit from the chance to see that their experiences and observations have value and that the value can be expressed by writing. I salute teachers who bring writing programs to prisons.
The teaching of writing, like much of academia, is fraught with argument, which is fine since it’s worth arguing about. For me, it begins with the validation of what the student brings to the page, eventually gets to grammar, and then we move on to Flannery O’Connor.
Lou Ureneck is chair of the College of Communication journalism department. He can be reached at email@example.com. This article first appeared in the Boston Globe on September 28, 2009.2 Comments