Why I Make Rules for My Writing Students—And Why I Break Them
Adam White on Teaching Writing (and Jack Nicklaus)
The legendary golfer Jack Niklaus has an unorthodox philosophy when it comes to teaching kids how to play the game. Most instructors want to build a young golfer’s swing from the bottom up, drilling them on the fundamentals, but Niklaus recommends letting kids swing as hard as they can. Don’t clutter their minds with rules. Don’t tell them how to grip the club or how to stand. Don’t demand that they keep their front arm straight, their head down. There will be time for all that.
When they’re just starting out, what’s important is that they have fun. Let it rip. They might miss the ball, top it, slice it, hook it, but who cares—they’re learning what works for them. Their muscles are figuring out their own way to swing. They’re developing their own style.
When I started teaching high school English ten years ago, my plan was to be the Jack Niklaus of writing instructors. I’d let my students let it rip. I’d give them the freedom to write what they wanted, in whatever genre they wanted, in whatever form they wanted. Which I did. And which I still do, more or less. I teach an advanced Creative Writing class to seniors, and they can submit prose, poetry, drama—whatever they’re into, we’ll workshop it.
But here’s what happened over the years: my students kept making the same mistakes, using the same broken tools. It was like watching a seven-year-old golfer shank the ball into a pond again and again, scaring all the frogs. The golfer gets frustrated. You get frustrated. The frogs get frustrated.
Being a teacher means being a professional reader of amateur writing. Unclear sentences will give you a very specific headache, one that starts in the middle of the forehead and spreads like gray sludge through all the pipes of the brain. Unoriginal choices will make you angry.
I’ve read I don’t know how many stories that begin with the line, Beep, beep, beep.
It’s an alarm clock. The protagonist is waking up. The day is beginning.
Other stories—a really shocking number of stories—end with some version of, “But it was all a dream,” and again the main character wakes up, but this time it’s to a normal day, a day completely unlike the zombie apocalypse we’ve been reading about for the last five pages. The smell of mouthwatering bacon is wafting up from the kitchen (and it’s always wafting up, always mouthwatering).
You can read the same endings and patiently give the same notes to every student in every workshop, and explain why the whole story can’t be a dream because then you’re violating the unspoken deal we writers make with readers—the writer builds a world, the reader takes that world seriously—or you can decide to take a different approach. You can get ahead of it. You can start making rules.
So from now on, you tell your class, no alarm clocks, no dream sequences.
These rules force a writer to be original. That’s a good thing.
More student writing rolls in. You give more notes.
The writers have been telling instead of showing, and at first, you don’t say anything because you know that a good writer will want to show sometimes but tell other times. You explain, on a case-by-case basis, why more description might be helpful here, why we don’t need a paragraph at the end of the essay telling us what it all means when you’ve already done a pretty good job showing us what it means elsewhere.
Then you find a character description like, He was the most popular guy in the class because he was funny.
And it’s this sentence that finally breaks you.
If the writer wants her reader to believe the character’s funny, we need to see the character tell an off-color joke or fall out of his chair, but something funnier than that, like maybe he’s about to fall out of his chair while telling an off-color joke about a bear in the woods, but he catches himself on the desk, starts to celebrate, and then the desk breaks and he falls anyway, which makes him fart, and all the other students are like, “You really should go to an internist and get your GI system checked, Rodney.”
So you make another rule: when in doubt, show instead of tell.
After ten years of teaching creative writing, the list of rules keeps growing. I’m still letting my writers let it rip, swing as hard as they can, but before they step up to the tee, I’m saying, “Hey, just a few things to remember: keep that front arm straight, keep your head down, and try not to hit the turf before you hit the ball.” With a few rules in place, they’re more likely to make solid contact. And if they make solid contact, they’re more likely to have fun.
When I wasn’t teaching, especially in the summer months, I was working on the novel I started in grad school called The Midcoast. But the more rules I made for my students, the more I saw where I was violating those rules in my own writing, making the same mistakes my students were making. It’s hard to be objective when you’re reading your own work, and it’s easy to give yourself the benefit of the doubt, but nothing’s worse than feeling like a hypocrite, so whenever I felt like a hypocrite, I’d force myself to see what needed fixing.But the more rules I made for my students, the more I saw where I was violating those rules in my own writing, making the same mistakes my students were making.
The rules were helpful for me, too. I was able to call myself out for lazy writing. No more shortcuts.
I made rules for my students when writing dialect (“Let’s go easy on the apostrophes and local slang”), then had to go through my entire novel, simplifying all the speech. I could write about characters who had Maine accents, I realized, without dropping every g at the end of every i-n-g.
I made rules against breaking POV or starting a story in media res. I recommended my students write what they know. This last rule came after reading one too many stories about drug dealers. My students, thankfully, know nothing about drug dealers. So those stories never felt real.
Hopefully The Midcoast feels real. But here’s where I have to make my confession: I’ve broken some rules. The novel has some weird POV shifts. It starts with an in media res prologue. And I wrote about drug-running lobstermen when I am neither a lobsterman nor a drug-runner.
I should feel like a hypocrite. And I do. And yet. I also feel like I’ve earned it. Like it’s my right. I may be a debut novelist, but I am no longer a young writer. When you work on the same book for over a decade, you can feel when it’s working, and you can feel when it’s not. You can feel how the story wants to begin, even if starting with the ending—a torched body, cop cars, flashing lights—is something you’ve warned your students never to do because it’s been done so many times before.
At a certain point—as a writer or a golfer—you have to start playing by feel, playing with confidence. If Jack Niklaus isn’t the greatest of all time, then Tiger Woods is. Like Niklaus, Tiger has taken millions of swings in his lifetime. Maybe billions. Early in his career, after becoming the youngest golfer ever to win the Masters, after becoming the best player in the world, he decided that his swing could be even better, so he tore it down and built it back up again.
As he learned this new swing, he learned new rules. He focused on the fundamentals. But then he swung the club enough times and in so many different situations that it became second nature, something he didn’t have to think about. If he was behind a tree and needed to bend the ball around the trunk and land it to the right of the trap and let it skip onto the green, he would imagine this shot—a shot he’d never attempted before—and execute it in one fluid motion because it was the right shot for that moment.
Early drafts of The Midcoast were written in the third person, but they wasn’t working. I needed to tell the story from the first person, and I needed that first person narrator to report on scenes he wasn’t there for. I needed to make the narrator someone who was a lot like me—a high school writing teacher—in order to write about lobstermen and drug-runners. I also needed the story to start at the end, in media res, like The Great Gatsby or Netherland, novels that also feature a narrator who becomes infatuated with a criminal acquaintance.
In order to tell the story the right way, I had to make the rules, learn the rules, teach the rules, and then know where to break the rules.
But I still think Jack Nicklaus is right.
The first pages of The Midcoast were written for my first workshop in grad school. I didn’t have much time, just a few days. I knew I wanted to tell this story but didn’t know how. If I’d thought more about it, I might have foreseen how hard the novel would be to write. I might have foreseen that it would take over a decade to finish.
I would have been paralyzed. I never would have written that first chapter.
But I didn’t have time to worry about it. I didn’t know any better. Back then, there were no rules. I was just having fun. Letting it rip.
Adam White’s The Midcoast is available now from Hogarth.