The Things You Can’t Teach

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TW Column by Steven Lewis

Another Brick in the Wall

 

Posters at School of Rock (Seattle) © Bridget Christian; Creative Commons license

Recently, an invitation to a performance by some local kids at a “rock academy” popped up on my Facebook page. Nice, right? Admirable. Sweet, even. Except I simply couldn’t work up the mojo to go see talented children play rock and roll.

Yes, I did feel guilty about not supporting kids in their artistic endeavors. I’ll cop to feeling a bit like a tsking church lady or some shushing librarian. The tightass dad from Dead Poets Society. The other tightass dad from Footloose. It’s not like me to be such a tightass—me, the guy who wrote Zen and the Art of Fatherhood.

And yet, there is just something wrong with adults teaching kids how to be rockers. Those young wannabes should be honing their chops playing loud, clunky, off-key music in nasty garages or dingy basements where parents and other adults are not welcome. And it almost goes without saying the parents should be scowling about how it’s “nothin’ but noise!,” or banging on the door and screaming, “Tone down that racket!” (Or maybe later, voices modulated, saying, “Let me play you some Pink Floyd to show what good music really sounds like.”)

The roots of rock and roll have always been about rebellion. About confusion and hostility toward…just about everything. It’s not about pleasing your parents or grandparents or teachers or audiences who like cover bands. It’s about saying it so f-ing loud only your friends can hear you. You reach down into your sadness, loneliness, frustration, and rage—and find your own voice.

I know that scoffing at the “education” of rock and roll dates me. My kids and grandkids would say I’m just another hippie who thinks it’s all been downhill since the 1960s. But my scoffing also covers a deeper unease about teaching the arts, one that’s harder for me to acknowledge as a longtime writing instructor.

Shred from Within!" at School of Rock (Seattle) © Bridget Christian; Creative Commons licenseTeachers, parents, and other adults need to pause and consider the implications of shipping their uniquely brilliant /sensitive/ articulate/precocious children off to afterschool writing programs, weekend workshops, arts camps, poetry tutors et al. The path to becoming a writer—a real writer, not a Hallmark Card writer—is similar to the route of the aspiring rocker. It’s paved with loneliness, sadness, confusion, frustration, and rage. And it’s all about finding your own voice.

For all writers, the voice is the word. Not the story. Not the form. As Christopher Booker makes clear in The Seven Basic Plots (Continuum, 2004), there are only a few storylines in the history of literature. As the singer in Ecclesiastes crooned, there’s nothing new under the sun. And although the world is full of talented writers, the ones who touch us most deeply, the ones whose work transcends the college reading list or the New York Times Best Sellers list, are not technically the “best” or most refined writers, but those whose work gains some unfathomable, tenacious foothold in the realm of the unforgettable.

So, here’s the rub: Almost all kids—my seven and their sixteen included—do not yet have voices of their own. When they perform for others, their voices have been diverted or at least modulated through the throat of some adult. In effect, they are lip-synching their way into adulthood. It is only when they’re alone, behind closed doors and locked diaries and various hand-held devices and quadruple-folded notes to friends, that they slowly, slowly, slowly—very slowly—begin to find their singularly true, soulful voices.

Try as anyone may, no one can teach anyone else the path to the indelible voice. It is won alone. Often enough, it happens through solitude, innocence, and ignorance. Also with courage and tenacity and a powerful measure of danger and heartache, humility and humor—but always alone.

I fear that when well-meaning adults intervene too soon, those unfortunate children might never find the true voices within, each with its own unique cadence, treble, and volume. In this often counterintuitive world of writing, the greatest danger of adult intervention is not necessarily harsh criticism, which frankly never works and far too often slams the door on writing for the rest of a child’s life. No, the greater danger is praise for a voice not yet one’s own. Those kids become unwitting mouthpieces for their parents’ best wishes, teachers’ narrow aesthetics, or society’s basest intentions—mere bricks in the literary wall.

Couch at School of Rock (Seattle) © Bridget Christian; Creative Commons license

I grew up at a time when most parents and teachers, for better and worse, kept clear of kids’ inner lives, especially the inner lives of kids who sat in the back of the classroom and didn’t cause any trouble. That was me. Voiceless. A nice enough cipher who trundled off to college for no other reason than the adults told me it was a good thing to do.

My freshman roommate at the University of Wisconsin, perhaps sensing I’d scuttled my way through adolescence by anticipating what adults wanted to hear, informed me that to save my silly suburbanized soul I should write poetry. I shrugged. He was clearly an idiot. I followed my cool new friends to the Pub on State Street.

But six weeks later, clueless, dateless, depressed, confused, and six or seven beers beyond logic, I recalled his prescription for my lost soul and found a napkin, borrowed a sticky pencil from the bartender, and began to scribble a self-absorbed, whiny, pathetic, woe-is-me ode to loneliness…and bad grades.

Midway into my final hand-wringing rhymed couplet, a slinky girl dressed in black came over, put her slinky white hand on my hunched shoulder, and asked what I was doing. I instantly recognized her as one of a dozen girls with long black hair, black eyeliner, black turtleneck, black skirt, black tights, and black Pappagallos who had refused to dance—or talk—with me an hour before.  

When I told her, somewhat sheepishly, that I was writing a poem, she didn’t turn away without changing expression, as she had when I’d asked her to dance. She asked what it was about.

I didn’t say it was about my deplorable social life or the D’s on all my six-week tests or my burgeoning understanding that I was not the most special Long Island Jew that Madison, Wisconsin, had ever seen. And while I hadn’t read Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, I had woken up momentarily in my 7:45 a.m. Freshman Comp class and heard someone say something about futility and the meaninglessness of life. So, I nodded and told her somberly, “The meaninglessness of life.” When her head tilted and a sympathetic smile formed on her thin lips, I added, “Futility.”

And thus I nabbed my first college date with Rhonda Something-stein from New Lincoln Prep in Manhattan.

A few nights later, rather than doing the reading for Meteorology (a five-credit class in which I was destined to get a D-minus and to tell my outraged parents, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”), I returned to the Pub, wrote another bad poem about despair, and titled it “Futility 2.” Another wan creature in black slinked over and wanted to know what I was doing: Date #2.

In the weeks that followed, I bought my first army surplus jacket, wrote more terrible poems on more used napkins, and attracted more black-clad slinky girls who seemed to like me for no other reason than I was writing poems about my utter wretchedness. After I’d shown my 22-year-old Freshman Comp TA “Futility 14,” she even did me the injustice of telling me I was a writer.

I was not a writer. I was a poser. A charming imposter, writing by the numbers, scribbling whatever some girl wanted me to say. And the following fall, I arrived back in Madison in full writer regalia: scraggly goatee, beads, enough curly flowing hair to fill most doorways, a half-dozen black T-shirts, and reams of shamelessly shameful poetry in a red rope folder.

My first stop was the Pub, where I looked around to scout out the best writing location, and, much to my horror, spotted five or six sallow boys dressed in army surplus jackets along the dark bar, a bevy of Joan Baez lookalikes at their elbows.

Instantly bereft, I found an empty corner and wrote a poorly constructed, self-absorbed, whiny, pathetic, woe-is-me poem about…not being noticed.

No one noticed.

I titled it “I Am Invisible 1.”

No one noticed. I wrote “I Am Invisible 2.”

No one noticed.

And for the first time in my life, I actually understood what it means to be alone in this universe. I didn’t speak as if I were completing someone else’s sentences. For the first time, I heard myself so that others might hear me. And while no one paid attention that evening, I knew I’d heard, however faintly, however unformed, however immature, something I’d never heard before: my voice.

"Dutch Classroom Around 1950" © Nationaal Archief; public domain


Art Information

Steven LewisSteven Lewis is a contributing writer and columnist at Talking Writing, a former mentor at Empire State College, current member of the Sarah Lawrence College Writing Institute faculty, and longtime freelancer. His work has been published widely, in journals from the notable to obscure, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, Ploughshares, Narratively, and Spirituality and Health.

He’s also literary ombudsman for Writers Read. His recent books include Zen and the Art of FatherhoodThe ABCs of Real Family ValuesThe Anxious GroomFear and Loathing of Boca Raton, and A Month on a Barrier Island. His new novel, Take This, was recently published by Codhill Press.

Visit him online at Steven Lewis’s website or @LewisWrite4hire on Twitter.

Comments

I'm an editor as well as a

I'm an editor as well as a writer. You've articulated here something that's been bugging my writer self about some of my freelance editorial colleagues, especially those who specialize in fiction. Among their clients are aspiring novelists who haven't put in the time to hone their craft, find the stories they want to tell, and develop their own voice, but they want to publish and they have deep enough pockets to hire an editor to help them do it. This the editor does, generally teaching the writer how to sell in one of the genre niches that commercial publishers love because they turn novels into widgets that can be sold in an already-identified market.

I do feel like an old fart sometimes, thinking it's better to come round the long way rather than take the shortcuts offered by classes and workshops and professional editors. On the other hand, most of the books that have affected me most powerfully were written by writers who did come round the long way and weren't trying to fit into an existing niche. So thanks for this piece. It's made me think harder about something I mostly grumble about to myself.

I very much appreciate your

I very much appreciate your kind and thoughtful comments, Susanna. As the mathematically challenged William Faulkner told us, good writing is "Ninety-nine percent talent…ninety-nine percent discipline…ninety-nine percent work." And beyond that complicated truth, I've come to understand that, along with the superb writing that drives this unique magazine, its most enduring value (to me) is that it makes me think longer and harder about the writing life, especially those things I grumble about to myself.

Steve: I found myself nodding

Steve: I found myself nodding in agreement about "teaching" kids to rock. It's a phenomenon I viewed at first with dismay. I believed -- hoped, actually -- the local school of rock would fade away. I didn't believe the essential elements of rock 'n' roll that you list could be taught. Nor should they be. Those elements were there to be discovered by young explorers and tolerated, if possible, by their elders. How could anyone take a class in rebellion? Your doubts were my own.
Though I never found the sort of refuge you describe (hilariously) in writing bad poetry, I recognized what you were getting at: the way the need for attention, the escape from loneliness, so frequently leads us down unexpected, even lifelong, paths. I know a large part of my involvement in the anti-war movement back when was powered by nothing more noble than a wish to meet girls. Sure enough, I met a few and married one. (I think this is what Gloria Steinem was alluding to in her now-infamous suggestion that female supporters of Bernie Sanders are similarly powered by a wish to meet young males.)
So -- here's hoping the kids manage to be all right on their own terms, not their teachers' terms, and that they'll one day find their own voices on their own, as well as their latter-day Baez or Dylan lookalikes.

Thanks, Jeremiah. Although

Thanks, Jeremiah. Although there is a contemptible history of adults telling children about the "good old days," dating back beyond Socrates(“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise”), I suspect that in its most benign forms it has functioned to provide a clear message to generations of kids everywhere that they must find their own ways in the world---or they will end up as the bricks in the walls the older generation has created for them. The more utilitarian elements of Dewey's philosophy, the driving force in American education, help to create a disabling lack of respect for experiential learning. I'm stepping off the soapbox now ... but I'm yowling, "Hey teachers, leave them kids alone."

Thanks, Jeremiah. Although

Thanks, Jeremiah. Although there is a contemptible history of adults telling children about the "good old days," dating back beyond Socrates(“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise”), I suspect that in its most benign forms it has functioned to provide a clear message to generations of kids everywhere that they must find their own ways in the world---or they will end up as the bricks in the walls the older generation has created for them. The more utilitarian elements of Dewey's philosophy, the driving force in American education, help to create a disabling lack of respect for experiential learning. I'm stepping off the soapbox now ... but I'm yowling, "Hey teachers, leave them kids alone."

Check out Dave Grohl's post

Check out Dave Grohl's post about young rockers:
“When I think about kids watching a TV show like American Idol or The Voice, then they think, ‘Oh, OK, that’s how you become a musician, you stand in line for eight fucking hours with 800 people at a convention center and… then you sing your heart out for someone and then they tell you it’s not fuckin’ good enough.’ Can you imagine?” he implores. “It’s destroying the next generation of musicians! Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy and old fucking drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they’ll suck, too. And then they’ll fucking start playing and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives and then all of a sudden they’ll become Nirvana. Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some shitty old instruments and they got together and started playing some noisy-ass shit, and they became the biggest band in the world. That can happen again! You don’t need a fucking computer or the internet or The Voice or American Idol.”

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