This essay might help you understand why you learned to write as you did, and might help you realign your thinking about the writing process.
To start: think about how you were taught. Were you given the five-paragraph essay or some facsimile? Did you write personal experience? Did you write whatever came to mind? Did you read literature or watch a film and then write about it? Were you not taught writing at all?
This is going to simplify a complex, messy history, but when I’m not writing fiction I’m studying writing, especially the history of its teaching. I spent fourteen years studying that, so this summary is fairly accurate, I think.
The Athenians had a problem: they were facing an enormous army from Persia, and they were facing other city-states, especially Sparta, that were sworn to destroy them. They therefore needed a powerful form of communication so all the soldier and sailors could literally be on the same page. (That’s not a cliché in this case; they had just developed the first – and only – true alphabet.)
They came up with what is generally called the Classical Canon, to which for clarity we can add “of Communication.” It consisted of five parts: Invention (ideas), arrangement (organization), style, memory (what your memories and your audience’s memories are), and delivery (the mode you will use, such as – in today’s parlance – whether it’s a television ad or a tweet). Key is that it’s NOT linear. Rather, it’s a star inside a circle, like, if memory serves me correctly, one of the old Texaco signs. All five parts affect all others at all times. There is no single starting point.
Along comes Plato, who grows up during the Peloponnesian War, which lasted, except for a six-year hiatus, for 27 years. Due to a plague, Athens loses. The Athenians also lose Pericles, their great leader, during the plague. Plato fears for his city’s life. Heavily influenced by Socrates, he writes the dialogues, which are a blueprint search for a new leader. They aren’t just philosophical meanderings, as many people believe. They had a purpose.
HOWEVER, Socrates warns Plato not to write down theories about writing. I always wondered about that, until one day the obvious hit me on the forehead as if someone had thrown a frozen banana. (To pre-empt your snickering, I’m going for phallic here.)
If you write down the theory, then you have to start somewhere, and the whole thing becomes linear. Which, as we will see, led to disaster.
Because he was looking for a great leader, and because effective leaders by definition are natural communicators, Plato insisted that communication is a talent. You either got it or you don’t got it. Moreover, Plato insisted that all Truth comes from within in, not from the world around us. Perhaps he looked around the defeated Athens and didn’t like what he saw. But I’m conjecturing.
Along comes his protégé, Aristotle, who insists that communication is a skill that anyone can learn. He invents a methodology to practice what he is preaching. (I will discuss that some other time, because it definitely affects you – but it’s another apple on the roaster.) Aristotle also insists that Truth comes from within but also from without. He then teaches Alexander, who (a) tames an incredible horse, (b) conquers the known world, (c) has a torrid affair with his boyfriend, (d) dies too young, (e) tries to bring real learning to the peoples he conquers, (f) all of the above. Choose f.
Skip ahead several centuries. The Romans adopt Aristotle’s vision of communication, not Plato’s. Eventually, the Roman world began coming Christian. They wanted to throw out the Classical Canon because it was created by those dirty pagans, the Greeks. Augustine, originally the best teacher of communication in Rome, gave up his mistress, stepped up to the plate, and – caved in. In order to save the Canon, he compromised. Invention, what everyone had agreed was the most important part of the Canon, was thrown out under the assumption that all ideas worth considering are in the Bible. The rest was saved, so that effective homilies could result. Now there are four parts.
Jump ahead a thousand years. The European printing press was invented. By that time, because the Canon was linear, people assumed that memory meant “memorization,” since they thought it could not come before Invention-Arrangement-Style. Since the printing press rendered memorization obsolete as far as delivered speeches go, it was dropped from the Canon. Now we have three.
Jump ahead about 350 - 400 years. Two things happen. First, the rhetoric department – upon which most universities were founded – splits into the English Department and the Speech Department. The speech professors appropriate delivery, but they assume it has to do with eloquence and other speaking variables. Instead of teaching communication modes, they concentrate on voice and visual aids. Now we have two.
Aristotle also invented the scientific method, upon which technology is built, and technology is the basis of the Industrial Revolution, a Pandora’s Box of social ills if there ever was one. Along come the Romantics – Wordsworth, Coleridge (especially), Byron, the Shelleys, Keats, Emerson, Thoreau. To rectify the problems, they insist on throwing out Aristotle’s ideas and ideals and returning to what they feel is an ideal, Platonic world.
In terms of the teaching of writing, this essential dichotomy – Aristotle vs. Plato – becomes a philosophical war among American universities that has affected us ever since. John Adams defends Aristotle. Harvard’s Harold Childs stumps for Plato.
In the 1870s, the faculty of Harvard, heavily influenced by Plato’s ideas of communication, decide on a test to see which potential students are talented writers. But they also are heavily influenced by the philosophy of Jefferson. As Jeffersonian egalitarians, they cannot just opt for the talented rich. They want to open their doors to everyone.
They create a test. To make it fair, they decide that everyone will write five paragraphs. They base that idea on a Greek construct called the epicheireme. However, the epicheireme has five PARTS, not five paragraphs. Moreover, it is meant for making speeches, not for writing. And, to add later-history insult to injury, you don’t have to have all five parts.
But there is a practical side as well. Writing is now being taught for the first time. The university isn’t used to the idea of small classes – they get in the way of money – so they want the writing professors to handle, literally, one or two hundred students and to read at least one assignment per week, often more.
The professors adopt the test to the problem. They only read the first sentence of each of the five parts. And because everyone wants to send their children to Harvard, what was supposed to be a test becomes commonplace throughout America.
Eighteen months after they created the five-paragraph essay, the Harvard faculty declares the method to be invalid. No one stops to realize that you cannot do a ten-page paper in five paragraphs. The cat is out of the bag. (Notice how I’m mixing metaphors.) And because the organization is now rigidified, Arrangement becomes moot.
All that is left is style.
Next comes Yale. The year is 1912. The faculty there HATE the faculty at Harvard, because Yale only wants to let in students from the Eastern Seaboard prep schools. But that’s illegal, you see. So they issue a booklist and base the college-entrance exam on the list. They then change the booklist about every two years. Only the rich schools can afford to change their books constantly. Brilliant.
Okay, but how to make the idea stick? The faculty then say that if you can read well you can write well. They have NO data to support their idea, but the idea catches on. Why shouldn’t it? It means that high school teachers need only teach literature, which is fun, not writing, which is laborious. Even today most teachers believe that reading drives writing, even though the data tell us it’s the other way around.
Jump ahead fifty years. A number of professors are fed up with reading boring, five-paragraph essays. But they are also Platonists. They believe that writing is a talent. They also believe that all Truth is within us. They therefore decide that students should write about themselves – intrapersonal communication, even though most communication by its nature must be interpersonal.
They need support for their ideas. So they create the Dartmouth Conference, during which they will determine what the teaching of writing should include. It should be a process, they decide. Fine, except ALL teaching of writing involves a process. They don’t tell people the obvious, insisting instead that only personal experience writing involves process. To prove that, they have the unanimous support of everyone at the conference.
Except they don’t tell American teachers a few things: (a) the conference was invitation-only, and its creators only invited those who agreed with them, (b) they had no data to prove that personal experience writing is effective, (c) the student writing they held up as resulting from their methods came from college students in honors classes, (d) all of the above. Choose d.
Today, there are three basic ways (or a combination thereof) that writing is taught: the five-paragraph essay, writing about literature, and personal-experience writing. All are judged mainly by style. Only the talented usually can break through style and have any real shot at quality content. But that was those methods’ design, you see. Except most teachers don’t know that.
Only about five percent of any large group is talented at any generally accepted thing. In other words, about five out of 100 people are talented auto mechanics. Another five percent get lucky on any given test. So on a writing test, about ten percent will do well.
I have taught college for 30 years and also taught high school for nine. I have judged several thousand college entrance exams, and have graded nearly a quarter million papers. Only about ten percent of the students using techniques based on Plato’s methods – which accounts for about 95 percent of the methods that English and language-arts teachers use today – do well on the tests. Which is to say, about that many would do well even if they weren’t taught.
The problem is this: English teachers continue to insist that they learned that way, so it must be effective. Of course. English teachers are almost always in the five percent who are talented writers. Otherwise, they would not have become English teachers.
So how does all this affect you as a writer?
Did anyone give you a step-by-step process of learning to write? Did you run into so many pitfalls and obstacles that you wanted to beat your head against a wall? I was told “Write two million words, and throw away the first million.” Yeah, right. Write twenty novels and throw away ten. Build twenty houses and bulldoze down ten. That will teach you to build houses.
There really is a better way.
I started teaching in 1970, started full-time in 1972, and in 1974 consciously decided that what I was doing – techniques that I later learned were based on Platonic assumptions – did not work.
I spent all summer that year creating a new system.
It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, when I returned to school for my doctorate, that I found out that I had accidentally reinvented and modernized Aristotle.
What were the results? By 1975 my students in developmental English were publishing nonfiction in national, professional magazines. In 1984 my students from the Siberian-Yupik (Eskimo) whaling village of Gambell, Alaska – students who had been written off as “unteachable” and “uncontrollably violent” – stunned American education by becoming the only Native Americans in the history of this country to win national championships in academics, defeating teams from schools for the gifted from throughout the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. In 1986 my students won international competitions in fiction writing. And from 1990 to the present, besides winning state and international competitions in fiction writing, my students have been accepted into such schools as Harvard, Dartmouth, Syracuse, Yale Law School, Stanford, West Point, Arizona State Law School, Berkeley Law School, the University of Washington Medical School, the University of British Columbia doctoral program in art history, to name just a few places.
They had two things in common: they are from rural Alaska, and they are using a system of writing based on Aristotle’s methods, not Plato’s.
We often receive letters from other schools, asking why my students are writing so well.
I answer: how well do you know the philosophy of Aristotle?