PALS is officially on summer hiatus, but we are interrupting our non-programming for some exciting programming. Below we have an interview with John Warner who has published two recent books, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing. The interview was conducted by Ben Murphy, a PhD candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill. Please find below an excellent interview that discusses writing theories, academic careers, and much more.
June 17, 2019
“You will spend your whole life learning to write, and then you will die.” This peppy line from Jeff O’Neal, editor at Book Riot, reverberates through John Warner’s two recent books on writing, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities (Johns Hopkins, 2018) and The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing (Penguin Books, 2019). The memento mori channels John’s gifts as a veteran writer and teacher who draws from wise advisors past, personal experience in the classroom and at the keyboard, and a rigorously fresh approach to pedagogy and craft alike. Now the author of seven books, John has spent two decades teaching college-level writing across a range of roles and institutions. This background anchors his ongoing contributions for Insider Higher Ed, where his blog “Just Visiting” distills trends in pedagogy and policy. For tact and wisdom in the world of higher education, John has set himself apart as an expert commentator who wryly soldiers along in the trenches.
I spoke with John over the phone about his new books—about writing, teaching, and his career. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
BJM: It’s unusual to publish two books so close together, especially when they focus on similar topics. How do you think about them in relation?
JW: In my grandiose moments I say that Why They Can’t Write is my manifesto. It’s my Declaration of Independence from everything that doesn’t work in the world of writing instruction. And The Writer’s Practice is like the Constitution. The first lays out grievances and a rationale for what we need to do and why, and the other is a guide for carrying out that project: the how. Like the Constitution, I see this as a living document, a starting point which will evolve as users build their practices.
BJM: Did you plan on this pairing? What was production like?
JW: Why They Can’t Write was the first book I conceived and the book I intended to write all along. But when I started shopping it around, I had this epiphany that I should do this other book. So, I ended up writing them simultaneously, jumping back and forth, which helped me. When one felt stale, I could move to the other; when I had an idea about how I wanted to describe writing instruction in Why They Can’t Write, I could immediately embody that instruction in The Writer’s Practice. All the material in The Writer’s Practice was pulled from teaching experience, but many of the activities had to fit a precise format, so the pivoting back and forth helped in that respect. That the books happened at the same time was not planned, but I’m incredibly grateful it came out that way.
BJM: A simultaneous revolution. This is a way of getting back to what the manifesto itself is all about. What exactly are you declaring independence from?
JW: Each chapter in the first half of Why They Can’t Write is titled for a “problem.” The problem of standardization, the problem of assessment, the problem of folklore, and others. These are elements of writing instruction that we need to rethink. Some of the problems are about the atmosphere in which students are expected to learn, or simply about the pressure of school, even the expense of school. All these problems keep students from having the time and energy to practice a better, freer approach to writing. In Why They Can’t Write, for instance, I describe the portfolio I completed in my fifth-grade class and the sheer variety of forms I used: limerick, historical fiction, speculative fiction, a “for-sale” ad that featured by skateboard. In hindsight I’ve realized that this range of writing taught me to think in terms of audience, purpose, and genre—all lessons I could apply to school without a rigid set of writing rules. That’s the vision for liberation.
BJM: And your guide for moving forward from these problems?
JW: Yes, the trickier part is what this looks like—the governance of the constitution. The Writer’s Practice is my attempt to ground writing instruction in the kinds of experiences (as opposed to assignments) that help writers build their practices—the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and habits of mind, that writers embody. I want the focus on the doing (process) as opposed to the having done (the product). The book is getting into classes already and I’m getting great feedback, but even as I read it, I realize there’s more that we could do. In fact, it was written to give instructors room to adapt.
BJM: I want to hear more about the writer’s practice. Could you elaborate on a phrase that comes up in the books a lot. What does the phrase, “Writing as thinking” mean?
JW: To me, the base unit of writing is the idea. And actually, sometimes it’s not even an idea, maybe that’s too strong. It’s a notion—an idea in your brain and you think, this seems true, or this seems interesting. You start there. And the process of writing may reveal other ideas that link to that, or it may enhance that idea; or it may prove that the idea is faulty as far as you can tell. But when we start with an idea, we think through the implications. We follow the chain of thoughts, sometimes bound by logic, but sometimes bound by imagination or surprise. I may be writing on a topic and something from left field comes in and suddenly I see a relationship. I have this idea and I see what confirms or challenges it and head off in a new direction, arriving at the end with an altered idea. When students can do that, they develop a practice. Unfortunately, too much of schooling (as opposed to learning) involves students thinking they have to figure out everything they want to say before they start. In reality, writing is a process of discovery. Saying that “writing is thinking” honors discovery and that each of us has our own view of the world, that we are unique intelligences with unique things to say.
BJM: And I think that connects to another phrase that appears a lot. What do you mean by “reading like a writer”?
JW: Reading like a writer is, for me, the opposite of how many students have been trained to read. They’re accustomed to doing a narrow close reading. Not close reading in the analytical sense, but more like scanning to extract a nugget of information for an exam. That’s what reading often means: finding the pre-determined answer to perform understanding. It’s not a matter of what the text means for a student in particular or about what it might mean in a broad context; just about what information is in a passage according to some abstract state of mind. But reading like a writer considers not raw meaning so much as the creation of meaning—not only what a text means but how and why it means. My graduate degree is an MFA in creative writing, and this approach is built into my origins as a fiction writer. When I read something that blows me away, my first reaction is appreciation; my second reaction is to ask, “OK, how did the book do that?” And my third reaction is usually, “How can I steal that?”
BJM: So, you’re trying to help students build those habits, stealing and all?
JW: Exactly. In class we look at lots of examples. We’ll look at a movie review, for example. The first paragraph says something like, “I’ve never been a fan of Ryan Gosling, but I loved First Man.” I’ll ask the students: why? Why would a reviewer begin this way? The students figure it out quite quickly: “She’s letting us know her bias.” Then I push them to think about the structure. Why is this sentence here? Students decide that stating bias is a way for the writer to orient the reader. As a class we work paragraph by paragraph. From this simpler example we work up to more sophisticated genres, but they’re always looking for the same kinds of moves. I often invoke the Wizard of Oz metaphor to encourage students to look behind the curtain to see what a writer is doing and how it’s being done. What choices are being made and why? We even dig into the nitty gritty. For instance, do your students worry about whether they can use “I” or use contractions and stuff?
BJM: Yes, I encounter a list of “don’ts” that students have been drilled to avoid.
JW: For sure. But consider that stuff from the vantage of reading like a writer. We see that this reviewer, for instance, is using contractions. What is the choice being made? Or maybe the author is using slang or colloquial language. We’ll compare to an author who’s made different choices on these fronts. Students see the differences. The more they compare, the more familiar the patterns become. It isn’t immediate, as I said. Not like flipping a switch. But they get to a place where they can continue to teach themselves through this way of reading. That’s the goal.
BJM: It’s interesting that you mention bias. I’ve noticed that student awareness of bias—and their propensity to point it out—seems to be ramping up. But sometimes the lesson has been learned too well, or perhaps learned unevenly. Identifying bias becomes a way of delegitimizing argument. Do you see this with your students?
JW: Yes. Calling bias offers a way to impeach someone’s point without confronting it, as if identifying where someone is coming from or what someone assumes is disqualifying. Academic spaces need to reject that rhetoric. It’s not useful. If the goal of argument is to enlighten—to literally shed light—then that sort of rhetoric has no utility. At the same time, and I discuss this in both books, we have to confront the perils of objectivity. Or at least, the perils of perceived objectivity, where students think that writing should be “objective,” a kind of Spock-like “just the facts.” Standardized tests have a lot to do with this, because they’re aiming for an answer that’s going to hit a narrow target. But objectivity should not be the goal in argument. Fairness should be. Accuracy. Openness. I stress these values that inform the writer’s practice. We cite sources, for instance, not because the teacher is going to get on your case about plagiarism but because it offers transparency and honesty to an audience. If you embody these values, nobody will care how “objective” you are, because you will simply be good, you will be entertaining and useful. It’s never easy. You always fall short of fully embodying the values that matter. But if that’s where you aim, your process and the product will be better.
BJM: This goes back to writing as thinking, but I wanted to ask about writing and teaching writing now. Both books explore parts of the writing process that don’t involve forming any actual words —the off-the-page moments of mind-wandering while out walking the dog or taking a shower. Are these moments harder to come by in today’s distraction/attention economy?
JW: I face that challenge every day. I spend all day looking into my screen. I have Twitter open; my email. I may need to go read about the Chicago Blackhawks. That said, because writing is thinking, those moments of distraction do sometimes end up unlocking ideas. But you do need to focus, and I do think it might be harder for younger people who did not know the world before this level of connectivity. I started writing longhand and then with a typewriter. The computer I had in graduate school didn’t even have internet connectivity. So, I know what it feels like to be truly locked in. There’s a difference between ambient writing and thinking and, on the other hand, just wasting time; I can feel the difference. I try to give students experiences where they experience concentration and “flow.” One exercise comes from my graduate school professor, Robert Olen Butler, in his book From Where You Dream. It pushes you into a subconscious dreaming state. Once you get there, you can feel it—the deep, creative concertation. We work on this for thirty minutes or so. Students are shocked because they think only a few minutes have passed. Once they experience that feeling, they can learn to reproduce it.
BJM: Your mention of typewriters suggests that you’ve been writing and teaching for at least a few years. But you’ve also done a lot of other things, and you say in the books that your career has uniquely situated you with a perspective on writing. How?
JW: When it comes to academia, my career is a paradox. Never being on the tenure track exposed me to teaching tons of different classes. Classes at different schools, in different disciplines. And being off the tenure track also meant that nobody was watching me. I had room to experiment, which was both because of an intrinsic interest in teaching, but also a survival strategy. If you’re going to teach way too many students, like I did when I had over 150, you have to ask: how do I adapt without (over) compromising what is meaningful? This freedom and need to innovate was interesting and challenging. At the same time, I had to live a parallel life of writing outside of academia in order to make money. I wish I could say my path was intentional, but there’s no master plan. The question remains: how do I stay interested in work that will also fulfill financial needs? My path is shaped by continually answering this question. Because you will never feel like you’ve made it—like you’re at the end-point. Not when your book gets published, not when you get the tenure track job, or even tenure itself. Instead I focus on the difficult but more achievable goal of liking what I do on daily basis. If I can anticipate an interesting task, I’m good.
BJM: Do you have advice about how to get to that place?
JW: I’m not sure my path is replicable, but I have learned that it is important to say yes. If someone asks you to do something, and it seems even semi-interesting, just say yes. Start doing it. You can always say no later, and you will figure it out as you go. Blogging worked this way for me. I had no idea if I could do it, but I said yes and—over time—I figured it out. The blog then formed the core of Why They Can’t Write. So, while I consider myself very fortunate, many of the turns in my career happened because I said yes when I didn’t know where I was headed. It didn’t always work. I made some bad calls, but I learned from them. My advice is that if someone offers you an inch of daylight, grab it. We’re often surprised by what we can do when we’re forced to stretch.
What I so appreciate about John and his books is the passion for teaching that does not ignore the structural and systemic challenges of the profession. (This capacious perspective is nicely outlined in Ryan Boyd’s review of Why They Can’t Write, which first brought me to John’s work.) John can help educators foster better writers and thinkers, but he can also help us understand how common shortcomings in the classroom are the product of scarcity conditions rather than uninspired instructors or the oft-cited failings of “kids these days.” He provides ample practical assistance as well as essential reorientation—a generous yet clear-eyed approach that will bolster writers and writing teachers alike. As if it were even possible to be a writer without also being a teacher, or vice versa.
Ben Murphy is a Ph.D. candidate studying nineteenth-century literature, the history of science, and genre fiction at UNC-Chapel Hill. His research appears in Mississippi Quarterly andConfigurations. Other writing can be found at The Millions, The Chicago Review of Books, PopMatters, symploke, boundary2, Full Stop, Gulf Coast, and The Carolina Quarterly. For links, visit benjamin-murphy.com