One Friday evening at Duke University, about 32 years ago, I went over to an auditorium to hear Norman Mailer speak. I was a graduate student in classics. That same evening I was more-or-less expected to attend a guest lecture on Ovid’s prosody, but Mailer was on campus, and I was young and antsy.
I should have gone to the Ovid lecture. Mailer was in his filmmaking stage during those years. His talk was prefaced by a screening of his latest, to date the worst movie I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen Plan Nine From Outer Space).
I don’t recall the title, if it had one. The movie was a stream of Mailer’s consciousness, featuring Mailer himself as an incoherent hero among some pretty actresses — a viewing experience memorable for the stupefied expressions on the faces of the audience when the lights went on.
Mailer then came on stage, the figure of a slight man with bushy gray hair, dressed in black: boots, tight pants, leather jacket. Standing behind a lectern, he talked about his filmmaking — a cataract of gibberish about essences and existential this and that — while the audience kept thinning out. Now and then he would punctuate one of his obiter dicta with a raised middle finger — an odd gesture of emphasis, I recall thinking, or was he flipping off the many students and teachers who were walking out on his lecture?
Among thirty or so hangers-on at a reception after the lecture, Mailer seemed more coherent, less colossally egocentric, even likable up close. At a lull in the conversation, an undergraduate suddenly blurted, “Mr. Mailer, I think you’ll agree that your movie wasn’t too well received this evening. Why do you want to make films? Why don’t you just keep writing?”
For a moment Mailer was speechless, as if stumped by the student’s guileless effrontery. A mournful look briefly crossed his face. Then he shrugged. “Filmmaking is fun. I hate writing — it’s hard work.”
ON SECOND THOUGHT, MAYBE it’s just as well that I cut the Ovid lecture. Mailer’s remark still comes back to me, at least once a year, when I teach a course in English composition. The traditional freshman comp course has come into dark times of late, obscured by the claptrap of Ph.D. theorists desperate to make academic careers out of any teaching job they can hustle in a tight market. Their own hatred of writing is of a species different from Mailer’s, born of tin ears and hollow spirits and infantile political certitudes.
My students are more like Mailer. They hate to write because they got stuck with me as a teacher — I mean, because they learn pretty quickly that good writing is hard work. I don’t encourage them, for example, to get in touch with their feelings, or to become politically aware, or even to make a movie. Instead, I tell them the truth about their slovenly syntax and lazy clichés, about the tripe that got them A’s from their overworked high school teachers. Suddenly, they’re getting their first D’s ever, apparently from the first teacher ever to look at their tripe closely.
It all comes to a head with the third writing assignment. After a few expository warm-ups, and the attendant degradations, they have to write a description. They have to climb out of themselves long enough to look at the world around them hard enough to write 250 words telling exactly what they see, hear, taste, touch.
The results are predictably gruesome. That is, the gruesomeness comes in three predictable patterns. First are the easy clichés, cookie-cutter expressions that reduce content-words (nouns, verbs, adjectives — the words you’re supposed to notice) to the status of function-words (pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions — the words you don’t need to notice).
Sometimes, collectively, the students reveal clichés I didn’t know existed. Each of the following sentences occurred in a different theme in a class of only twenty students:
The smell of pizza fills the air.
The stench of rotting fish fills the air.
The musty scent of perspiration fills the air.
The air was filled with the aroma of sizzling bacon.
Next are the mixed metaphors, the inevitable consequence of disconnecting words from images — of not thinking:
The stinging yellow dust grabbed my eyes and yanked.
His fist was released like an arrow from a bow.
My hands began to shake like an earthquake.
The dugout erupted like a broken piñata.
Covered with Christmas lights, our home shines with the beam of a lighthouse.
A third pattern is the keynote: a kind of insistent commentary horning in on the description and crowding out the images. The commentary is always clichéd:
The vibrant warmth of the sun covered the verdant wilderness.
I was awed by the river’s elegant windings.
Dusk is the time to look at the breathtaking sunset.
But often the commentary seems redolent of a cultural narcissism, a weirdly vagrant specificity of self-absorption:
My car’s ignition sounded similar to the boom heard from an F-14 Tomcat or any other jet featured in the classic movie Top Gun.
The sky attained the color of the silver tea set that has been kept in the attic since my grandma died 20 years ago.
A 1973 Buick-sized orange moon fills the evening sky.
Of course, the three patterns, like Greek conditional sentences, can be mixed into bewildering varieties. Here’s a composite served up by one student:
The acid churning in my stomach was my body’s natural response to its impending doom, and the invisible wells in my forehead brought buckets of perspiration to the surface.
He means he was trying to write a description theme. Always there’s at least one student who wants to be different by making the assignment itself his topic.
When I grade their descriptions, it takes me about ten hours to get through 20 one-page themes. I have to puzzle over the right choice of words to steer each student away from imbecility without calling any of them an imbecile. I can’t say I’d rather be making movies; after all, when it’s an exercise of disciplined talent, filmmaking probably isn’t all that much fun either. No, rather than grade description themes, I’d much prefer to be doing something indisputably mindless, such as watching CNN or playing video poker.
But when the ghastly chore is over, it feels like time pretty well spent. The description theme and its rewrite aftermath are times of discovery for many of the students — when they first stumble, ass over teakettle, into the wonders of language and the shame of their self-protective scribbling.
Above all, they learn that they are not doing it right unless it makes them feel as if they’d rather be making a movie.