I received an interesting email from a high school teacher who was seeking my thoughts on how to get her male students more interested in writing, as either a hobby or a career (why anyone would want to make a career out of this escapes me, but play along).
My response was that to be interested in writing you first had to be interested in reading. That’s self-evident. If you want kids to be interested in playing rock guitar, the place to start is to have them listen to rock music so they want to be part of the experience. Same with reading and writing.
I understand her frustration. There is a growing culture of illiteracy that celebrates ignorance. One has only to look at the latest masterpiece from Kanye West (which actually required a ghostwriter) to appreciate this trend. “I am a proud non-reader of books,” states the pop sensation. I don’t have anything I can add to that. And no, I’m not making this up.
UPDATE: The Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) went well. Questions and responses can be viewed by clicking here!
The teacher’s response to my observation was that of course reading was important, and that she thought perhaps some articles about Hemingway and some Steinbeck might fire her students’ imaginations.
I admire her ambitions, but my advice is a little different.
If you want to create readers, which is the first step to creating writers, you have to give them something that grabs them – that’s relevant, interesting, and lurid enough to capture the imagination of a 16 or 17 year old boy. Steinbeck ain’t gonna cut it. The immediate response (mine would have been at that age) will likely be, “great, another boring book about shit I don’t care about, written by a guy who was dead before I was born. Groan.”
My advice is different. I’d say get em to read JET. If they aren’t sucked in within the first three pages, wanting to know what happens next, I’d be very surprised. And once they’re in that world, it’s easier to demonstrate the hows and whys of writing – why something works or doesn’t, descriptive techniques that evoke versus fall flat, effective dialogue, etc.
That’s not to say my books should be used as anything but a cautionary tale. Rather, as a gateway to pleasure reading, which is the first step in creating a literate population. If you don’t enjoy reading you won’t do it, and if your school is making you read a bunch of crap you have no interest in, guess what the chances are that you’ll be interested in doing more of it? What are the associations you’ll likely make about reading? What will be your takeaway?
Literacy is important to society because the written word is the primary way knowledge is passed from generation to generation, in the sciences, in the humanities, in virtually every way. A nation of sheep that has no interest nor ability in reading is a nation in decline. Literacy matters. But to convince people that literacy is important it has to be entertaining or they’ll tune out. People that don’t read, don’t read because they never learned the pleasure of reading, and view it as something unpleasant. That’s my theory, anyway.
So that’s my advice: buy my crap, see if the lads like it, and use it like a gateway drug. Get them into reading and then move them up to the harder stuff. Try to start them off with work that has “literary merit” and you’ll lose more than you’ll gain. I know that’s not very PC, where knowledge should be its own reward, but I have no philosophical axe to grind, and I don’t particularly care about having kids read only “meritorious” work. If they’re reading, whatever it is, that’s good.
As a civilization it’s not a good thing to have a populace that can’t or won’t read. I mean, if what you want are voters who don’t understand any issues beyond what they see on Twitter or on TV it’s perfect, but if you want a population that can actually reason and appreciate nuance, forget about it. I personally believe that’s been part of the great social engineering experiment that’s been going on in the U.S. for years – the dumbing down of society, resulting in adults with the reasoning abilities of children – the perfect consumer society, but not one that’s going to result in positive social change, much less revolutionary ideas.
That engineered illiteracy ensures the mantle of power stays with the elite, whose children go to the best schools and are taught how to read and write and count, ensuring that no meaningful competition develops from upstarts outside that elite class. It’s perfect: as George Carlin liked to say, “a population that’s just smart enough to operate the machines, but doesn’t question what the machines are ultimately doing,” being ruled by elites who are the custodians of knowledge. If that sounds medieval, it is, only with 50 inch TVs and a new car every three years.
Throw in a heaping dose of irony and apathy with your illiteracy and the job’s done. Foster the idea that nothing’s worth trying to change because it’s pointless, and nothing’s worth understanding because there’s no value in understanding – just in consuming, in indulging one’s appetites like, well, spoiled children.
Reading can be transformational. But it’s also dangerous to a status quo that depends on dullards for voters/subjects. An informed citizenry is a dangerous one for despots and tyrants. Information is power, best limited to the erudite who are “qualified” to run things.
Reading encourages thought. It is antipodal to the short attention-span mentality of TV, where you don’t allow someone on a show who can’t articulate an idea in two minutes or less. Noam Chomsky speaks of that: it results in “news” and “commentary” that regurgitates accepted truths and chills original or controversial thought, because those thoughts often can’t be easily explained in 90-120 seconds.
The internet has changed the way many read. People want all the info in one or two paragraphs. If it takes more than that, they tune out. But the problem is that complex, nuanced messages require in-depth explanation and exploration of the issue at hand, not just a capsule summary with easy-to-digest sound bites. And that can rarely be done in two paragraphs. I mean, sure, I can explain the physics of how a 747 flies in a couple of sentences, but it takes considerably more to understand the physics (the upper surface of the plane’s wing is curved, the bottom flat, so that at a certain speed it takes longer for the air to travel over the curved area due to resistance than over the flat, creating lift). And again, to understand, we need to read.
Which brings me full circle to writing. To communicate ideas or experiences, especially complex ones, writing is the time-tested method. And to have stuff worth reading someone has to write it. Now, don’t get me wrong. There are more than enough books already in print to last a hundred lifetimes. There’s more than enough commentary and information on the web and in magazines to last a thousand. But people like the latest shiny thing so more often than not that’s all ignored and what’s focused on is the latest, greatest.
That being said, readers need writers. Just as writers need readers. They’re both solitary occupations, wherein the writer is able to affect the reader in a one-on-one manner that’s unique. Film can’t do it. TV can’t do it. Even audio books can’t do it.
What do I mean? The above control the velocity of how information is disseminated. But with reading the reader controls it. If he/she wants to go back and reread a section, fine. If his/her inner voice decides to read fast, versus at a moderate pace, super. Dialogue takes on intensely personal characteristics based on the reader’s interpretation of the written word. At the point a narrator reads it or it’s filmed someone else is interpreting it.
But back to 16 and 17 year old boys who are primarily interested in the opposite sex, hunting, and four wheel drive trucks (this is in Kansas, BTW). How to get them interested in writing? Get them interested in reading, and in understanding that unique connection a reader and writer can have, and demonstrate the power of ideas, of information exchanged in written form, not as images or sounds. In other words, make reading and writing relevant. Which has to begin with making it enjoyable.
Marketers know this. They convince countless millions to smoke every year. To take a noxious smelling substance that’s expensive, tastes terrible, and will destroy your health, and convince folks that it’s sexy or makes them independent or rebellious or whatever else they want associated with inhaling smoke into one’s lungs. They understand that to get people addicted to a substance, they have to make it appealing – enjoyable, at least in terms of perception.
We can learn from that. To make reading vital it must be enjoyable. Readers have to see something in it for them. Well-intentioned ideas about self-improvement or gaining knowledge are fine, but before any of that gains traction, reading must be enjoyable for the target audience. The rest will follow.
And for some, once they enjoy reading, they’ll think, “hey, maybe I should try my hand at writing!”
And thus are writers born.