The Courage to Be Wrong: In Defense of Prescription

I teach in a graduate writing program where to suggest we ought to be prescriptive (i.e. start with first principles to apply to the work at hand) in our workshop comments or revision suggestions would be like insisting we ought to admit few to no black students, or queer ones. It’s taken in faith as wrong. That second position is indefensible. I’m here to see how I might defend the first.

Definitions may help. The OED’s got this for prescribe: “To write or lay down as a rule or direction to be followed; to impose authoritatively; to ordain, decree; to assign.” No wonder we hate it. Good writing rarely if ever comes from following rules or directions, or from imposed authority. But there’s more: “To limit, restrict, restrain, circumscribe; to confine within bounds.” This is interesting; half the writers I know—students or otherwise—feel creatively charged by imposed constrictions and restraints. There’s a whole school of literature founded on same. We have the medical definition (“To advise or order the use of [a medicine, remedy, treatment, etc.], esp. by a written prescription”) we could adopt metaphorically, because it’s softer, and more accurately gets at what we teachers of writing do in the classroom.

And then we can get literal: “To write first or beforehand; to describe in writing beforehand; to write [something] in front.” To pre-scribe. To see prescriptive grammar, or prescriptive guidelines for writing, as maps sketched by elder frontierspeople. Where be monsters? “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs,” prescribes Stephen King, “and I will shout it from the rooftops.”

Let’s stick rhetorically with medicine. To prescribe requires three things: knowledge (of the pharmacopoeia and how chemicals effect healing processes), authority (an earned degree and a prescription pad pharmacists will honor), and the courage to be wrong (because not all medicines work the same way for everyone). To describe is never to be wrong. “I feel achy throughout my body, and I’m not sleeping well.” Imagine telling a doctor this and hearing in response, “It sounds like you have body aches and trouble sleeping. Here’s my bill.”

Writing is such a spooky art that even those of us who’ve been doing it for decades never feel as though we know how it happens. And yet through the degrees we increasingly seek to earn we claim the authority to teach others how to do it.

One way to interpret that how is vocationally. How to write every day. How to set yourself up for discovery and insight. How to find a path to be a writer for the rest of your life. My colleague, Michael Martone, has worked a long career to develop a pedagogy along these lines, and his method is descriptive because, whereas medical patients are the most in tune with their symptoms, writing students don’t always know or can’t often articulate what it is they’ve done in a manuscript. “You’re using the secondary character of Carl to point out for the reader all the ways Sheila is wrong about her own story,” becomes the descriptive feedback. Or: “Animals are dumbed up in this essay, made idiots.”

The other way to interpret that how is through tactics. (I was going to type “aesthetics” here but how this is wrong ties so closely to my argument I’ll be coming back to it.) How writing works. How to achieve through the use of language the things we want our writing to achieve. An essay comes in to class that is 70 percent quoted material and 30 percent discursive glue between quotes. “I feel lost in this,” says a classmate, “like there’s no guiding presence telling me so what.” Put more of yourself in the essay is the poor prescriptive advice, because it doesn’t get at tactics. At how. At what we can do as part of our process. Instead, we can go from experience: Stop using a tape recorder and try taking written notes.

In class yesterday we looked at of of studying under Annie Dillard. There was a list of key points. “Avoid emotional language” got laughs. Ditto “Never quote dialogue you can summarize.” You can’t get more prescriptive than these. Unexamined, they seem (like most unexamined things) quite useless. But oughtn’t we avoid emotional language when it prevents us from rendering emotional action in an unaffected way that can more fully transmit? “Avoid emotional language” is a sloppy but not inaccurate summary of Eliot’s “Hamlet and His Problems”. And universally beloved writer George Saunders is a pro at summarizing dialogue that does nothing, when quoted, to reveal character. From “Sea Oak”:

Once I asked [Bernie] was she sorry she never had kids and she said no, not at all, and besides weren’t we her kids?

And I said yes we were.

But of course we’re not.

For dinner it’s beanie-weenies. For dessert it’s ice cream with freezer burn.

“What a nice day we’ve had,” Aunt Bernie says once we’ve got the babies in bed.

“Man, what an optometrist,” says Jade.

Why I didn’t type “aesthetics” up there is that being prescriptive in a writing classroom is not (or shouldn’t become) a way for Teacher to make his students write like him, or write in the same style. This is the symptom of students emerging out of composition classrooms. Instead, being prescriptive is to say “I’ve been here before.” Or, better: “I’ve written here before. This is what worked for me. It might not work for you, but you’d be foolish not to give it a try. What do you have to lose?”

What, I think, writers feel they have to lose when following prescriptive advice are their own voices, or spirits, or integrity. It’s understandable. But maybe misguided. I’ve been writing for years and I still feel that the work I did five years ago is garbage and nothing I’d be proud of having hung preciously onto. This is the only way I know how to grow as a writer. If Annie Dillard, who has been a professional writer longer than I have been alive, suggests I try increasing the number of verbs per page, I’m going to give it a try. It’s not going to make me write more like Annie Dillard, it’s going to make my writing more active on the page.

She may be dead wrong, but I in my verblessness may be dead wronger. And besides, who’s more wrong is never mine to decide.

3 thoughts on “The Courage to Be Wrong: In Defense of Prescription”

  1. I’ve often found it interesting that aspiring screenwriters seem desperate for prescriptive advice. At a Q&A with a produced screenwriter, invariably a group of questions will be about whether it’s correct or incorrect to write “we see” in a scene description, what the maximum number of lines for a description is, what they should do if their script is 101 pages instead of 100.

    Usually the writer being asked finds some variation of “don’t worry about it,” and the asker never seems satisfied. Most of these people aren’t “writers” per se, but have come up with an idea for a screenplay and decided to try to write it. As such they’re seeking the rules and the facts that will get them a passing grade, as it were, like the diet rules that will guarantee they lose 10 pounds in a month or the study guide that will let them pass the real estate licensing exam. Those rules don’t exist, of course.

    On the other hand, professional TV writing is an extremely prescriptive process. A writer hands the script into the room, and the group tries to improve it through specific suggestions/orders. In fact, part of the key to being a successful TV writer, and especially a successful showrunner, is to be able to be prescriptive in such a way that is clear and easily understood by the writer, while also being able to clarify why the prescription is an improvement, while also being able to judge the degree of prescription the writer wants so as to get a result without giving them more or less freedom than they’re looking for.

  2. Good points, Seth. Very beginning writers, too, seek weird prescriptions that won’t help: “Do you write on a legal pad or type on a typewriter?”

    Over the years I’ve been hearing “Well, of course, we can’t be prescriptive here, so…” as something given. Yer third ¶ here gets at precisely how prescriptivism is a pedagogical and creative method just like any other.

  3. The trick is to be prescriptive from the inside out. Do I know how to make the student’s poem better? Often, yes, I do! Do I just tell her? Not always. What I often try to do instead is to help her cultivate a broader range of skills, tactics, and techniques than she has now, plus a healthy critical distance from her own work. With those, she ought to be able to figure out herself what’s best to do. Give a poet an active verb and this poem’s better; teach her about the different kinds of effects different kinds of verbs have and she has more control over her poems forever . . . My goal isn’t to show how it should be done but to show the many ways it could be done and what effects will follow from each choice . . .

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