My life as a reader and film goer overlapped significantly with Stephen King’s rise to fame as a horror writer, and then while I was teaching in the summer institute for a regional National Writing Project (Spartanburg Writing Project), we assigned King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
I have recently reconnected with King through his Doctor Sleep (see my review) and Mr. Mercedes. But thanks to Jessica Lahey’s How Stephen King Teaches Writing, I have been drawn back into King as not just a writer’s writer, but also a teacher.
As an article at The Guardian suggests, please read the whole interview, but I want here to highlight a few points.
On teaching grammar:
Jessica Lahey: You write that you taught grammar “successfully.” How did you define “success” when you were teaching?
Stephen King: Success is keeping the students’ attention to start with, and then getting them to see that most of the rules are fairly simple. I always started by telling them not to be too concerned with stuff like weird verbs (swim, swum, swam) and just remember to make subject and verb agree. It’s like we say in AA—KISS. Keep it simple, stupid….
Lahey: You write, “One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not.” If this is true, why teach grammar in school at all? Why bother to name the parts?
King: When we name the parts, we take away the mystery and turn writing into a problem that can be solved. I used to tell them that if you could put together a model car or assemble a piece of furniture from directions, you could write a sentence. Reading is the key, though. A kid who grows up hearing “It don’t matter to me” can only learn doesn’t if he/she reads it over and over again.
The discussion of teaching writing has never and can never stray too far from the G word so I am always compelled by the urge to dive right into grammar when anyone discusses teaching writing (see Why Are We (Still) Failing Writing Instruction? and More on Failing Writing, and Students; see also the work of Lou LaBrant). King’s comments here and his role as a teacher of writing, I think, help highlight the power of teaching writing by those who have authoritative stances as writers themselves.
On favorite works to teach:
Lahey: When people ask me to name my favorite books, I have to ask them to narrow their request: to read or to teach? You provide a fantastic list of books to read at the end of On Writing, but what were your favorite books to teach, and why?
King: When it comes to literature, the best luck I ever had with high school students was teaching James Dickey’s long poem “Falling.” It’s about a stewardess who’s sucked out of a plane. They see at once that it’s an extended metaphor for life itself, from the cradle to the grave, and they like the rich language. I had good success with The Lord of the Flies and short stories like “Big Blonde” and “The Lottery.” (They argued the shit out of that one—I’m smiling just thinking about it.) No one puts a grammar book on their list of riveting reads, but The Elements of Style is still a good handbook. The kids accept it.
For nearly two decades, I anchored my poetry unit for high students with the songs of R.E.M. and the poetry of James Dickey; I was thrilled to see King mention Dickey’s “Failling.” See R.E.M./Dickey poems lessons here, and I recommend highly Dickey’s “A Dog Sleeping on My Feet,” “Cherrylog Road,” “For the Last Wolverine,” “The Heaven of Animals,” “The Hospital Window,” “The Lifeguard,” and “The Performance.”
On diagramming sentences:
Lahey: While I love teaching grammar, I am conflicted on the utility of sentence diagramming. Did you teach diagramming, and if so, why?
King: I did teach it, always beginning by saying, “This is for fun, like solving a crossword puzzle or a Rubik’s Cube.” I told them to approach it as a game. I gave them sentences to diagram as homework but promised I would not test on it, and I never did. Do you really teach diagramming? Good for you! I didn’t think anyone did anymore.
As I have addressed recently, like discussions of teaching grammar, debates about diagramming sentences seem to recur—notably in a recent NPR piece. I think King here finds a way to make diagramming less controversial, posing it as one avenue to playing with language. In my work on writers—Barbara Kingsolver, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin—I have noticed a consistent pattern of word play among those who are drawn to reading and writing.
On conferencing with students as writers:
Lahey: By extension, how can writing teachers help students recognize which words are required in their own writing?
King: Always ask the student writer, “What do you want to say?” Every sentence that answers that question is part of the essay or story. Every sentence that does not needs to go. I don’t think it’s the words per se, it’s the sentences. I used to give them a choice, sometimes: either write 400 words on “My Mother is Horrible” or “My Mother is Wonderful.” Make every sentence about your choice. That means leaving your dad and your snotty little brother out of it.
Over my thirty-plus years teaching writing primarily to high school students and undergraduates, I have come to mark far less of student essays (about the first third with track-changes and comments focusing on prompting revision) and depending much more on conferences. In my conferences, I always start with “What were you trying to accomplish or say in this?” And then we can begin to discuss how they have or have not met those goals (ones they can often say aloud but cannot bring to fruition as well in their writing).
On writing without fear:
Lahey: You extol the benefits of writing first drafts with the door closed, but students are often so focused on giving teachers what they want and afraid of making mistakes that they become paralyzed. How can teachers encourage kids to close the door and write without fear?
King: In a class situation, this is very, very hard. That fearlessness always comes when a kid is writing for himself, and almost never when doing directed writing for the grade (unless you get one of those rare fearless kids who’s totally confident). The best thing—maybe the only thing—is to tell the student that telling the truth is the most important thing, much more important than the grammar. I would say, “The truth is always eloquent.” To which they would respond, “Mr. King, what does eloquent mean?”
This is extremely important and speaks against the inordinate amount of writing students do to someone else’s prompts (and even someone else’s nearly entirely prescribed content and scripted form). King also challenges the use of grades, and recognizes how harmful grads are to coming to be a writer. If students are to become writers, they must be allowed to make the sorts of decisions writers make and then produce the sorts of authentic forms writers produce.
On what students should read:
Lahey: English teachers tend to fall into one of two camps when it comes to literacy: Those who believe we should let students read anything they want so they will be more likely to engage with books, and those who believe teachers should push kids to read more challenging texts in order to expose them to new vocabulary, genres, and ideas. Where would you pitch your tent?
King: You don’t want to leave them in despair, which is why it’s such a horrible idea to try teaching Moby-Dick or Dubliners to high school juniors. Even the bright ones lose heart. But it’s good to make them reach a little. They’ve got to see there are brighter literary worlds than Twilight. Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex.
Choice is not only important for learning to write, but also for reading, and here King examines perfectly the delicate balance of in-school reading—fostering a love of reading that includes choice and attaining a sophistication about text that comes from reading more complex and challenging works—especially as that is guided by an expert reader (the teacher).
On teaching as craft or art:
Lahey: You refer to writing as a craft rather than an art. What about teaching? Craft, or art?
King: It’s both. The best teachers are artists.
The interview ends perfectly, I think, with these words from King.