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Clotilda Adams Revisited:
Some Thoughts on Writing and Writers

By Anthony S. Abbott

Let me begin with a story. It was a cold, blustery January day in the city of Detroit, and the snow was beginning to fall in the gray of late afternoon. At Wayne State University, a young Humanities instructor named Herbert Gold was returning a set of test papers to his class. And just as he was getting ready to begin his lecture, he heard outside the classroom window the sound of metal upon metal. He looked out the window and saw that a truck on the icy street had sideswiped a taxi cab, pushing the cab up on the sidewalk outside the building where his class was being held. He saw the taxi driver, dazed and bleeding, get out of the cab. Immediately he went outside to help him into the building and into the room, where he and the students made him as comfortable as possible while they waited for an ambulance to come. After a few moments two policemen entered the room and began to ask the driver questions about the accident. "Wait a minute," said the teacher. "This man is badly hurt. Can't these questions wait?"

"Look, teach," said one of the policemen, "You mind your business and we'll mind ours." Gold did not like this at all, and continued to argue with the policemen, and if you were a fly on the ceiling you might have seen this strange scene--the stricken taxi-cab driver lying on the floor of the classroom among the coats and scarves, on either side of him, standing, the policemen and the professor, and surrounding them like a Greek chorus, the class, fascinated by the class of these authority figures. One student in particular, a girl named Clotilda Adams, stood watching, her hand clenching her returned examination paper, tears coming from her eyes.

Eventually the ambulance came, and the attendants lifted the cab-driver onto their stretcher and carried him out, with the policemen following, and the students returned slowly to their seats, all except Clotilda Adams, who stood, tears still in her eyes, next to Herbert Gold, her teacher, and asked, "Why did you give me a F on that examination?"

Herbert Gold gave up teaching the Humanities at Wayne State University... not just because of Clotilda Adams, but because he felt that he was failing as a teacher. The point of the Humanities was to humanize, and too many things were getting between the text and the student, too many things were preventing a real human experience from taking place. Was it the academic system itself? the pressure for grades? the belief on the part of many students that "academics," as they like to say, are irrelevant to their real lives? Gold gave up teaching to become a writer because he believed that "particular life is still the best map to truth" (Gold 203) and that "as a writer, I could hope to hit them in their bodies and needs, where lusts and ideals are murkily nurtured together" (203).

In our hearts we understand that decision, but unlike Herbert Gold, we remain in the profession of teaching English, because we hope that somehow--beyond our unreasonably heavy loads, beyond the administrative bureaucracy that continually asks us to do more for them rather than their doing more for us, beyond students apathy and indifferences--that somehow our work really matters, that "particular life is still the best map to truth," and that we can somehow reach the Clotilda Adamses of the world.

Much of our success depends on what we ask our students to do and why we ask them to do it. Benjamin DeMott, Professor of English at Amherst College, puts the challenge this way in a recent article: "For most of my working life I've been a composition and literature teacher, and one of my chief on-the-job frustrations has arisen from the difficulty of thinking up assignments that have a prayer of producing good writing" (DeMott, Greeting 1). Isn't that wonderful? Think about it. We complain woefully about how bad student writing is, but is it entirely their faulty? Is the lack of imagination ours as well as theirs? How can we think up "assignments that have a prayer of producing good writing?"

DeMott suggests a method that works for him. "I myself," he says, "am partial to assignments that elicit writers' efforts from an earlier piece of DeMott's which made a tremendous impression on me very near the beginning of my teaching career. A high-school writing teacher from Cheyenne, Wyoming, brought to a conference on the teaching of writing samples of student essays he had assigned. A student who had been asked to write on the topic: "an important decision" produced a paragraph on bull riding, an uncommon topic naturally for us, but not for a student in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

I had been riding bulls for 2 summers and wasn't doing too bad at it, when I was chased up a fence by a bull in Thermopolis. This didn't seem to affect me and I went right on riding; however, in Douglas this summer I rode a bull, and bucked off; and the bull came at me, hit me, then tried to bury me. After that I swore I wouldn't ride bulls again. In the same rodeo my buddy was riding a bareback horse and he fell under it getting kicked several times. Then I swore I would never ridge horses or bulls again.

This, it appears, is the "important decision" the student made, one that seems to us eminently reasonable. The teacher returned the paper and said some things to the student about developing details, about showing rather than telling; the student revised the piece and resubmitted it. Here is the revision:

The day was on the chilly side. The sky was overcast and the wind was strong. Most contestants wore jackets when not up. Bull riding was the first event, and I was second out on a good spinning bull named Corkscrew. He was a big blue-gray brahma with long horns protruding from his head like big sagging ears.

I nodded my head and the chute gate sprang open, and I then knew that this was going to be no picnic. He jumped high and began spinning to the left as if he were going to screw himself into the ground. I was just getting with the spinning bucks when he ducked out from under me, throwing me hard on my left shoulder. As I was rolling over from the force of the fall my eyes caught the huge animal throwing up dirt with his front feet, preparing to charge. I jumped to my feet and didn't waste any time getting to the fence, but my ton and a half friend was right on my tail. His head was lowered and snot was streaming out of his reddened nostril (DeMott, Supergrow 150-151).

At eight o'clock in the morning especially on Fridays after Thursday night parties at the fraternity houses students in my freshman composition classes aren't good for much, and I have to think of ways of keeping them awake. So I think of devilish things to do. This is one of my favorites. I read them the two passages I just read to you and ask them which one is better. The second one, they say, because it has more detail. "But is it really?" I ask. "What about the cliche's? What about 'I knew this was going to be no picnic' and "my tone and a half friend'?" It's a fun exercise, because whatever they say is wrong, unless someone has the wit to say "neither" and that is highly unlikely at eight o'clock. I let them talk awhile, and then I read them DeMott's answer, and that's the part that wakes them up:

The snot in the nostril does not, I think, change the bull. It is one more bit of objective timese, one more "balding" or "blue-eyed" or whatever, one more pretense that the viewer does not affect the object viewed. The right question to ask the bullrider was, perhaps: What about the canvas strips wrenched up under the animal, crushing his screotum? How can you think of them? Have you thought about why the animal bucks? Why does the animal not shriek? Why do we do this to them? Have you imagined this pain? Why do you yourself and I myself not care very greatly about it? Here is a dreadful, needless affliction of tornment--a creative backing, rocking, tearing itself apart in air--and we are oblivious to the shrieking in these motions. Why so?

That usually wakes some people up. And at that point I can ask the next question: What is DeMott talking about? What does he mean? He means, quite literally, that "revision" means "seeing again" and that seeing again means seeing differently, and that seeing differently means writing the essay from a different point of view, if you like, the point of view of the bull. Wirting well means learning to imagine what it must feel like to be someone or something one is not, so as to increase one's own humanness and that of the reader of one's essay in the process. Writing well means being able to write from the point of view of the taxicab driver and the policemen and the stretcher bearers and not to think about one's grade.

I recently encountered an article by Lawrence Lipking, Chester D. Tripp Professor of Humanities at Northwestern University. The article is called "Teaching America," and in it Professor Lipking asks, "What do we teachers most want our students to learn? What kind of America and American human beings do we want to teach? How might we help bring it about?" (Lipking 11). His answer to the questions is simple: "I want my students, as I want myself, to be less blind." Less blind to what? Less blind, in the words of William James "to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves." The act of writing can be an important part of the process of learning to see more and better.

Writing well means thinking about writing as a learning process. It may enable us to get beyond the prejudices and limitations of our own time and place and find ourselves, for a short time at least, alive in the music and art and literature and politics of another. Writing well means--horror of horrors--to think of what you write as something that someone beside the teacher might want to read. It means thinking that something you are describing or narrating or analyzing might, in some conceivable way, change the life of the reader for the better. Entertain the reader. Make the reader understand something she didn't understand before. Make the reader feel a little more alive.

But to do any of these things, the writer must first become a better observer, and to become a better observer one must develop the capacity to observe more closely. No one does that better than Annie Dillard. On the first day of freshman composition I always read this passage from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I've never been seized by it since. For some reason, I always "hid" the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe. But I never lurked about. I would go straight home and not give the matter another thought, until, some months later, I would be gripped again by the impulse to hide another penny.

It is still the first week in January, and I've got great plans. I've been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But--and this is the point--who gets excited by a mere penny? If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kit paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way? It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won't stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get (Dillard 14-15).

I usually end the first class with that, trying to get the last line to hit right as the bell rings, sending them out to ponder what it means. Then the next day or the next class period I ask them. What are these pennies all around us? Where are they? They shift in their seats. They hedge. It is eight o'clock and they haven't bargained for having to think at this ungodly hour. So I have mercy (for the time being), and I read them some more Annie Dillard. "Seeing," she says, "is of course very much a matter of verbalization" (30). It's a trap. Writing helps you to see, and seeing helps you to write. You can't do one without the other. We go visit the art gallery, and try to describe paintings. A circus visits Davidson. We go look at the elephant. We go to plays and lectures. Why? To practice the art of observation. "What you see is what you get." Good writing is not merely a matter of correct grammar; it is a matter of learning to see better and to see more. Prejudice is the result of short-sightedness, an inability or unwillingness to see the full humanness of the people against whom we are prejudiced. "The lover can see, and the knowledgeable," says Annie Dillard, and she means it. You can't see unless you love something or someone enough to want to see her or unless you study something deeply enough to really know how it works. Most of what we write is bad because we neither love enough nor know enough. What makes Annie Dillard a great writer is her extraordinary capacity to notice details and to report what she sees in language that is both exciting and accurate. Let me read you another passage from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and as I read it, let me ask you to write down all the verbs. I will go slowly:

A couple of summers ago I was walking along the edge of the island to see what I could see in the water, and mainly to scare frogs. Frogs have an inelegant way of taking off from invisible positions on the bank just ahead of your feet, in dire panic, emitting a froggy "Yike!" and splashing into the water. Incredibly, this amused me, and, incredibly, it amuses me still. As I walked along the grassy edge of the island, I got better and better at seeing frogs both in and out of the water. I learned to recognize, slowing down, the difference in texture of the light reflected from mudbank, water, grass, or frog. Frogs were flying all around me. At the end of the island I noticed a small green frog. He was exactly half in and half out of the water, looking like a schematic diagram of an amphibian, and he didn't jump.

He didn't jump; I crept closer. At last I knelt on the island's winterkilled grass, lost, dumbstruck, staring at the frog in the creek just four feet away. He was a very small frog with wide, dull eyes. And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football. I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall. Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water: it was a monstrous and terrifying thing. I gaped bewildered, appalled. An oval shadow hung in the water behind the drained frog; then the shadow glided away. The frog bag started to sink.

"The secret of seeing is," says Annie Dillard, "The pearl of great price. If I thought he could teach me to find it and kept it forever I would stagger barefoot across a hundred deserts after any lunatic at all." But she doesn't need to. She can write these two paragraphs only because she has both the patience and the skill to describe what is happening. She can first of all see the disintegrating frog. Most of us would have walked by without noticing it. And she can verbalize what she sees in a way that allows us to see as well. That is her gift to the reader. We see through her book creatures and processes that we could not notice in what we call "real life," just as we see through works of art people and actions that we would not have noticed if we saw them on the street.

Why do we see so well? Because of her ability to put us in her place. We become her seeing the frog. There are two kinds of verbs in the passage--verbs which describe what she is doing, and verbs which describe what is happening to the frog. The first set includes "walking," "see," "scarce," "amused," "learned to recognize," "noticed," "crept," "knelt," "lost," "staring," "looked," and "gaped." All of these words describe either a physical action which allowed her to see the frog better or an action of the inner eye which enable her to transfer the visual perception to the mind. And what does she see? She does not see the frog "jump." Rather the "crumpled and began to sag." Listen to the array of words which follow: "vanish," "snuffed," "emptied," "dropped," "collapse," "settle," "shrinking," "deflating," "ruck," "rumple," "fall," "lay," "hung," "glided," "sink."

"What you see is what you get," Annie Dillard has reminded us, and what we see when we read her work is the miracle of detail in operation. We gain from her both knowledge of how nature works and a sense of terror and awe in experiencing the process.

We write to enlarge our humanness, and we read for the same reason. If reading does not make us see better and see more, then we had better give it up. And we had better know what we mean when we say "better" and "more." That is a front on which we have battled before and on which we shall have to battle again, for there are those who would force us both to see and to teach works which diminish rather than enlarge our being. All great literature is moral, but not moral in the way that a particular church doctrine or social point of view believes in morality. The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Color Purple are great moral books. They are moral in the deepest sense--they change our consciousness. After Malcolm X, I knew for the first time what it must feel like to be a gifted black adolescent growing up in a world where he could aspire to nothing better than being a clerk or a janitor. I felt a shame for my own race, that it could impose these limits on him, and I understood for the first time his rage and the rage of others like him, and though I feared that rage, I did not think it was wrong. The Color Purple taught me something about the wonderful courage of women and how their support for one another can overcome even the most brutal treatment by men, and I felt shame for my own sex. And then there is that extraordinarily moral book, The Catcher in the Rye, which people keep attacking for the most remarkably bad reasons. Many years ago, when I first began teaching at Davidson, I gave programs on religion and literature at several of the Charlotte churches--Myers Park Presbyterian, Trinity Presbyterian, Christ Episcopal, and many others, and I made the mistake of reading the following passage as an example of Holden Caulfield's morality. It is a scene from Chapter 25 (incidentally one of the great chapters in American fiction) which Holden visits his sister Phoebe school:

...while I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody's written "Fuck you" on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they'd wonder what the hell it meant, and then some dirty kid would tell them--all cockeyed naturally--what it meant, and how they'd all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days. I kept wanting to kill whoever's written it... I hardly even had the guts to rub it off the wall with my hand, if you want to know the truth. I w as afraid some teacher would catch me rubbing it off and would think I'd written it. But I rubbed it out anyway, finally.

I went down by a different staircase, and I saw another "Fuck you" on the wall. I tried to rub it off with my hand again, but this one was scratched on, with a knife or something. It wouldn't come off. It's hopeless, anyway. If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn't rub out even half the "fuck you" signs in the world. It's impossible (Salinger 207-8).

People in the class were offended by the language, by the unacceptable "f" word, and they were so offended that they could not sit in a room and listen to me say it. So they assumed that somehow the book was immoral or that poor Holden, whose problem is essentially that he is too moral, was somehow to be condemned for having pronounced the word.

So what is the English classroom for, after all? To answer the question, let me return to the words of Benjamin DeMott:

"English" is not centrally about... poetics, metrics, mysteries of balance and antithesis in the Ciceronian sentence. It is not centrally about the history of literature... It is not primarily the place where students learn to mind their proper manners at the spelling table or to expand their vocabulary or to write correct like nice folks. It is not a finishing school, not a laff riot with a "swinging prof"...

It is the place--there is no other in most school--the place wherein the chief matters of concern are particulars of humanness--individual human feeling, human response, and human time, as these can be know through the written expression of men living and dead, and as they can be discovered by student writers seeking though words to name and compose and grasp their own experience" (DeMott, Supergrow 142-143).

Let me conclude with an example of what I mean from a recent class in creative writing. I had asked each of my students to select a contemporary poet or fiction writer who moved them, who might serve as a model for the way they would like to write, and one student selected Sharon Olds, a poet I admire greatly and whom I invited to participate in the North Carolina Writers Network Fall Conference in Charlotte last November. We talked about Sharon's work for a while, and then I offered to read a poem I liked, a poem from her collection, The Gold Cell (1987) entitled "The Abandoned Newborn."

I started to read it, but I was so emotionally aroused by the poem that I couldn't finish it. I kept stopping, collecting myself, and not very forcefully going on. And when I got to the end I understood this poem, myself, and America in a way I had not before. And I will never be able to read this poem again without remembering that moment, the students in that class, and the way not only I but they were affected. We need the courage for such moments, the courage to face our own weakness, and the courage to hope that our students will appreciate and understand why we are moved and why such literature means so much to us. Let me read you this poem.

"The Abandoned Newborn"

When they found you, you were not breathing.
It was ten degrees below freezing, and you were
Wrapped only in plastic. They lifted you up out of the
Little basket, as one lifts a baby out of the crib after nap
And they unswaddled you from the Sloan's shopping bag.
As far as you were concerned it was all over,
You were feeling nothing, everything had stopped some time ago,
And they bent over you and forced the short
Knife-blade o breath back
Down into your chest, over and
Over, until you began to feel
The pain of life again. They took you
From silence and darkness right back
Through birth, the gasping, the bright lights, they
Achieved their miracle: on the second
Day of the new year they brought you
Back to being a boy whose parents
Left him a garbage can,
And everyone in the Emergency Room
Wept to see your very small body
Moving again. It saw you on the news,
The discs of the electroncardiogram
Blazing like medals on your body, your hair
Thick and ruffed as the head of a weed, your
Large, intelligent forehead dully
Glowing in the hospital TV light, your
Mouth pushed out as if you are angry, and
Something on your upper lip, a
Dried glaze from your nose,
And I thought how you are the most American baby,
Child of all of us through your very
American parents, and through the two young medics,
Lee Merklin and Frank Jennings,
Who brought you around and gave you their names,
Forced you to resume the hard
American task you had laid down so young,
And though I see the broken glass on your path, the
Shit, the statistics--you will be a man who
Wraps his child in plastic and leaves it in the trash--I
See the light too as you saw it
Forced a second time in silver ice between your lids, I am
Full of joy to see your new face among us,
Lee Frank Merklin Jennings I am
Standing here in dumb American praise for your life.

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