It’s Only Words


I was a day ahead in my blog posts, but now I’m not. I am working on an essay for my trip to The Porches in July. Well, two short essays (hopefully a third). I tell myself that’s the reason I am behind in blogging. But I really can’t justify that. I am very determined to not write about writing, writer’s block, or process on my blog. I mean, once in a while that’s ok. But writing about writing seems to me an excuse to not write.

There are hundreds of thousand of blogs about writing and writer’s block. And I don’t want to be that. My blog has a readership of about 445 people per post. And most of them aren’t writers, or I assume that anyway. I guess they could be, but my experience in hearing from them is that most of them are seeking to be entertained, to enjoy the read/ride. They, for the most part, don’t care about my process—well maybe they do, but it’s the story that is important to them.

It’s hard for me to not write about writing. I write every morning with coffee. I read about writing every day—hell I teach writing!  I’m writing a book about writing. I live and breathe it.  It is, in my opinion, one of the two fundamentals necessary to survive in the real world. Math is the other—but thankfully we have calculators for that.

Writing doesn’t have that; something finite that gives a clean black and white answer. Something authoritative. Something incapable of creative independent thought. Sure there’s spellcheck (I love that Microsoft word has that underlined in red), and grammar check but each of these can only fix mechanics, not ideas. And neither catches all the mistakes! What if your mistake is deliberate? Each semester/term I quote Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. (p. 56, ch. 5)

I tell my students to apply it to writing. If you make a mistake, and it’s deliberate, it’s okay. However, if you make a mistake and it is unintentional, it’s wrong.

Yesterday, I picked up my six-year-old grandson, Joshua, from school and took him to see The Avengers (he was with his mother for the weekend when the rest of us went—don’t even get me started! That’s another essay—novel). As we rode he talked.

“Nana, do you make your students sound words out?”

“If they don’t know them I do. But most of my students don’t need to do that anymore. They’re in college. Why?” I asked.

“Because when I look at words I can make the right sounds for each letter but it just doesn’t make any sense to me. Like J O G. ju o ga. Sounding it out doesn’t help. Phonics is stupid.”

I wanted to tell him that he should stop stressing about it; the words would come. I wanted to tell him that effing phonics breaks it’s own goddamned rules and isn’t spelled phonetically. I wanted to tell him, you see, Joshua, this is why Nana teaches college because phonics doesn’t make any sense to me either. I tried to think back to learning to read, but it’s like toilet-training, or tying shoes, or using a knife; it is deeply engrained in who I am and I don’t remember the process.

I do remember telling Sister Anne Marie that phonics wasn’t spelled phonetically, and then I had to repeat the blasphemy to the principal, Sister Mary Victor. There were probably lots of Hail Marys and Our Fathers involved.

And after that, I had the pleasure (?!?) of spending an hour a day at a little desk in the corner of the nurse’s office with Sister Loyola reading, or rather learning to read using phonics. I could already read, I started school able to read. I just didn’t read their way.

Instead I said to Joshua, “Well, you’re smart and we’ll figure it out. Everyone learns in his or her own way, for a lot of people phonics works. But we have to find your way.”

“I wish reading was like math. Math is easy, we learned plus and I can do any numbers you give me. Reading words isn’t like that; there aren’t rules.”

I could hear the desperation in his voice. I had (still have) that same sort of desperation when it comes to math. I’m fifty-three years old and not above using my fingers to figure things out. It doesn’t help that I transpose numbers. Thankfully most of the figuring I have to do is done in Excel (checkbook ledger and grade sheets). His voice rang with a familiar feeling, other people think this is easy, and I don’t get it, I must be stupid.

His tone awakened in me that same feeling. And renewed it. How do I teach writing every day, how do I expand vocabularies, instill confidence, making writing a less arduous task for hundreds of students and yet, I can’t break down and teach its simplest component: sounding out words.

Years ago, I saw a quote attributed to Noah Webster (you know, like the dictionary Webster) on someone’s office door, “I have nothing but contempt for anyone who can spell a word only one way.” I think Jefferson actually said it, but ok, I really like the idea that a man who penned a dictionary said it. And a quote that is often attributed to Mark Twain echoes the sentiment; “I don’t give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.”

Great thinkers, all three. I wonder if they ever thought themselves stupid.

How can I teaching writing words, but not reading them? How is that so easy for me? I don’t teach people how to make words, but rather how to use them. I think I have it sorted out. Writing is about the generation of ideas—stories. Reading is interpretation. Wanting to know. One gives birth to the other.

All four of my children went to school reading, so it logically follows that I taught them this skill. But I didn’t, we read together and they came to recognize words – they wanted the stories, not the words.

Joshua had trouble sitting through the movie. The story didn’t hold him. I mentally connected the dots. He cried on the ride home—he has homework to do. He has words to sound out, copy, know in a way he doesn’t know. Without old nuns in tiny spaces how do elementary school teachers handle the student for whom phonics doesn’t work and no story has ignited the imagination to read? I know what I do in a college level writing class, or when I have trouble writing. But how to inspire a six-year-old? Somehow, writer’s block seems inconsequential next to reader’s block.

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2 thoughts on “It’s Only Words

  1. Poor Joshua and poor you. It’s so difficult to watch people we love suffer any pain. My son Jonathan had some serious problems sequencing in elementary school. I remember having to read all his work to him because he would forgot the beginning of the sentence by the time he got to the end. (At that time there was little help or recognition of dyslexia) He’s 32yrs old now and a voracious reader, so there is hope that situation does sort itself out over time. I remember reading The Hobbit to him at bedtime when he was about six. He loved it so much that I must have reread it five times that year. That was the book which fired off his imagination and his desire for more reading. I hope Joshua finds his Hobbit.

  2. I feel for the little guy. Phonics made zero sense to me as well (and we homeschool our girls, so my wife has to teach that course). Counterwise, math makes perfect sense. The rules for math are the same as they were yesterday, the same today and will be the same tomorrow. 1 + 1 always equals 2 (below Calculus level, anyway). On the other hand, my spelling is atrocious. Unsurprisingly, each of my girls struggles with it.

    Math they love. Go figure. Must be a left brain, right brain thing.

    We read constantly to our girls when they were younger and two of the three are voracious readers now. The third one is coming along, but she was the biggest fan of “Daddy, tell me a story about …” It was (is?) an interactive game where one of the girls would give me a topic or phrase and the four of us would create a round (and round) robin story based on that.

    I suppose that was their Hobbit. I agree with Veronica. Whatever the inspiration, each child needs to discover their own and, in doing so, open up brand new worlds for them to explore.

    Joshua, I get it. Really I do. Fortunately, you don’t have to be good at spelling or grammar to be a good storyteller. Don’t let an ever shifting set of rules crush your creative spirit.

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