Famous Last Words: Learning to Write
When I ran this magazine, I told the editors we were experts talking to experts. They not only had to understand everything they wrote, but they also had to be able to explain it to their grandmothers. “This is the real world,” I admonished them. “We cannot fake it.”
One editor was a very facile writer, but her writing frequently turned into gibberish. “What does this mean?” I would ask her. “I don’t really know,” she would answer. “That’s what the guy told me.” After a string of such instances, we had to let her go.
How do you prepare young people for the real world?
About 20 years ago, two professors from Harvard were invited to address the Harvard Club of Fairfield County (Conn.), and I was invited to hear them. The premise: give the old grads a taste of what currently was being taught at Harvard.
It was instantly clear that Harvard’s Richard Marius—Reformation scholar, novelist and director of the Expository Writing Program—was a truly great teacher. Fiftyish at the time, he had a mop of dark hair, a black mustache, a wicked glint in his eye and a disarming smile. He described the first assignment he gave to his incoming freshman writing students—hotshot kids who graduated at the top of their class in high school and were very cocky.
Marius’ classroom was in Harvard’s Memorial Hall, a wonderful Victorian pile of bricks dedicated in 1874 to the memory of those Harvard men who died fighting in the Union Army during the Civil War. The first assignment handed to the new kids was to write a short paper about Memorial Hall—say, 300 to 500 words.
“Sir, what do you want the paper to be about?”
“That’s up to you. Here is this fine old building. I would like you to write something about it.”
Marius told the class his policy was to read every draft a student submitted and comment on it—easy in the era of the typewriter, but a killer to fulfill when everybody had a computer.
The bell rang, class was dismissed and all the students beetled over to the library to look up what had been written about Memorial Hall so they could ace their first assignment.
Of course, this was long before the Internet and when the mother lode of all humankind’s knowledge was out there for the stealing.
Marius looked over his audience of alumni and broke into a mischievous grin. “Guess what,” he said. “There is nothing in the library about Memorial Hall. Nobody has ever written about it.”
To say the kids were flummoxed is an understatement. The range of emotions went from consternation to desperation. A line of dispirited students showed up at Marius’ office door. “What do you mean” they asked, “when you say you want a paper on the building? Tell me exactly what you want, and I will give it to you.”
“It’s up to you,” Marius told them. “Spend time in the building. Get to know it. What was the architect thinking? How does the building work? Does it fulfill its purpose? What was its purpose in the first place?”
Suddenly these bright, supremely confident 18-year-olds who had racked up 4.0 grades in high school were pushed to the wall—forced to do some conceptual, creative thinking and writing for the first time in their lives.
Marius and his students—with multiple drafts and much angst—put each other through sheer hell that first semester at Harvard. But those kids came out of that assignment knowing how to think—and write.
Alas, Richard Marius’ career was cut short; he died after a long bout with pancreatic cancer in 1998. He was 66. I felt very privileged to have heard him and regretted never having him for a teacher—or a boss.
Denny Hatch is a freelance direct marketing consultant and copywriter. Visit him at www.dennyhatch.com, or contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.