Sunday, October 3, 2010

Writing like Tony Danza

Friday night my wife and I watched the first episode of actor Tony Danza's documentary series that follows him through his effort to become a high-school English teacher. As an educator I cringed throughout most of his ordeal; there were moments when I had to look away from the screen. Because Mr. Danza was so afraid of not being liked by his students that he invested most of his energy into trying to gain their approval. Worse, from my standpoint, his soul-searching video diary entries were about how to get the children in his class to like him. True, his sincere intention was to do his best to educate his class of tenth-graders, BUT he was proceeding from the assumption he could not do his job unless they liked him.

This is a common misconception among new teachers. Actually, it's a problem with too many teachers who should know better as well. Teaching is not about students liking you – and being able to educate has nothing to do with popularity. What you do to reach your students, to motivate them, and to encourage them to raise their own standards, is teach. Do your job well – know what you're talking about, convey your knowledge clearly, let them know how to apply that knowledge, and then set high expectations for their performance. Your students may never like you, but they will learn from you and they will leave your class equipped with knowledge and skills that will help them meet their next challenge.

A key element in being an effective educator is something most teachers fresh from college don't have: Confidence in your knowledge and your abilities. And you have to respect your students without being intimidated by them – or by the challenge of teaching them.

Those two elements are as important to writers as they are to educators. Don't worry about whether your reader will like you. Do not try to change how you present yourself or how you write (or what you write) to please someone else. Do your job well, tell your stories the best way you know how, and let your work speak for itself.

Liane Spicer and I exchanged a couple of e-mails about editors and the adjustments they sometimes make to our prose not too long ago. An example I did not think of then appears in the first chapter of Wolf Hunters. An injured character is brought into the infirmary and the medic, I wrote: "pulled the stethoscope from about his neck and levered the earpieces in." My editor changed the end of that sentence to "into his ears." My second thought in seeing those added words was that my editor did not trust the reader to know where a doctor would put the earpieces of his stethoscope. My first thought was recognition: I'd originally ended the sentence just that way. Not because I didn't trust the intelligence of my reader, but because I did not trust my ability to present even a common action clearly.

Writer Una McCormack recently posted a column on craft and balance in what she called the nuts and bolts – of storytelling. She was speaking in particular about well-constructed sentences and how a poorly written sentence can throw a reader right out of your story.

She chose as an example of an unbalanced sentence the opening line from the second novel in a popular series of historical mysteries set in the seventh century:
"The night was warm and fragrant; but as oppressively scented as only a Roman summer’s night can frequently be."
Ms McCormack wrote: "With that 'frequently', I am lost. Because that single word gives me a glimpse into the author’s mind as he writes, and I sense him second-guess himself … and his sentence – already heavy with adverbs – collapses with the weight of yet another, and with the burden of the author’s moment of self-doubt."

That self-doubt is the key. Perhaps the poor construction of that sentence could throw a reader out of the story, but the underlying cause of that poor construction is "the author's moment of self-doubt."

Doubting yourself is normal; it's part of every risk you take. And writing – like marrying and teaching and just about every important thing you will ever do – is a risk. A healthy amount of self-doubt makes you double check your safety lines, give your best work a second inspection, and practice just a bit harder to hone your skills. Too much doubt, however, can paralyze you. Or worse, weaken your prose. By making you over-explain, or equivocate, or hold back to avoid offense, or choose your words based on what you think others would want you to say.

Never doubting yourself is hubris. But don't let doubt weaken your words.


Charles Gramlich said...

Where the teaching thing is concerned, unfortunately, some of a teacher's job security is based on how they are liked by their students. At least at the university level where we recieve evaluations from our students

Dee said...

There is a fine line to keeping that balance of being true to yourself and not going overboard. Great post!

KeVin K. said...

Thanks, Dee.

Charles, my students at Cape Fear Community College submitted evaluations every quarter as well. But there was nothing on the eval about whether or not they liked me (though some may have used the "comment" section for that). They rated me on how well I did my job.

Liane Spicer said...

I was a teacher myself for many years and I learned early on that it was not a popularity contest. I didn't need students to like me: some would, some wouldn't. Respect me, yes - and that would come only from doing what I was paid to do effectively. My self confidence grew as the years passed and experience mounted.

The writing is another story. I don't remember having much self-doubt before I was published, but it set in with a vengeance after my first (and only) sale. It's a constant struggle now to keep out the chorus as I write: agents, editors, readers, reviewers and their expectations are all in there and I long for the good old days when the characters were the only ones I could hear in my head.

Jewel Amethyst said...

My first occupation was a middle school teacher, and though my students liking me was not my aim, I found if they did like me they went over and beyond the call of duty to do well. Those who didn't like me gave me hell.

When I was a high school student, there was a teacher, a strict disciplinarian who no one liked. One day during a teacher-recognition assembly where the students got to vote for their favorite teachers, everyone started chanting the teacher's name. When she came on stage, she was booed to embarrassment.

So though being liked is not the aim, it helps productivity and standards of learning. By the way, that teacher got some of the worst results from her students.

Terence Taylor said...

I don't know what's more frightening -- Tony Danza viewing teaching as a suitable lat life career change -- and English? -- or that an actor can't let go of his need for approval long enough to remember why he's really there...