There are two ways to do things, my father always said, the right way and the wrong way. He would then mutter, but there’s only one way to do something right. This muttering usually followed some boneheaded decision of mine. Maybe I painted the south side of the barn in the heat of the day, or I didn’t replace fencing when I knew the old locust post was rotted through and through. Maybe I simply left the lid off the mayonnaise jar, although I placed it back on its shelf in the fridge. There’s only one way to do something right is a mantra that hounded me for years.
I disagree with my father’s assessment. I disagree with all of it. I disagree with the binary first approach. I disagree with the singular obsession that there is only one way to do something. I disagree that doing something “right” is really all that necessary. I mean, yes those locust posts were rotted and the cattle could nudge them sideways in search of greener grasses. Yes, that barn had to be repainted the very next summer. Yes, an unlidded jar of mayonnaise clarifies into some new (and somehow grosser) substance. In the process of realizing why these chores mattered is where I learned something invaluable. Just doing something right for the sake of doing it right left me bored and disinterested and unchanged, but the process to troubleshoot carried over to any problem in my day to day. I’m not a washing machine repairman, but when push comes to shove, I find myself acting like one. I am not a computer programmer, but when my router lights are bright enough to steer an airplane through the dark, I figure out how to write a script that shuts them off.
Here’s the thing. Focusing on writing the right way is an exercise in missing the point. My colleagues across campus sometimes ask, what are you guys teaching over there in the English department? Let me translate that. You should teach more grammar, because our students aren’t writing at the level of our expectations. This sentiment is persistent. It has followed me across five states and four institutions. Here is the thing: 2 + 2 never equals 5. It always equals 4. That logic means the noun sidewalk can never be the verb sidewalked. Fragments never acceptable. Sometimes a fragment is acceptable.
There’s only one way to do something right. Right? Well, it depends.
This week students are conferencing with me. This week they are bringing in rough drafts of their final essay for the semester. This week students are talking to me with a shared vocabulary and a strong sense of where their writing is successful and where it still needs improvement. This week students have more command over the elements and organization of their essays, because fifteen weeks of writing and writing and writing have pushed them to the point where they now are.
This week my students still struggle with all of it. There is room for improvement. The topic sentences can be refined to let the reader have a glimpse of what’s to come. The examples can be unpacked a little more to shed more light on the argument which is so clear in a student’s head, but it is such an unwieldly thing when it’s typed onto a screen.
There isn’t one correct route to success when it comes to writing. Both writing and teaching writing are messy endeavors, because every person carries a different bag of tricks. What’s right for some students is not necessarily what’s right for others. Writing is a thing to be practiced, like a craft. Like pulling a paintbrush across a barn or twisting wire around a cow fence, writing gets better with practice. The mistakes you make along the way are part of the learning process. The mistakes are as important to figuring out how to say something as they are in helping a writer avoid them again in the future.
If I may, I’d like to change my father’s mantra for the students in my writing classroom. I’d like to share it with all those past colleagues who voiced frustrations when all I could think to do was shrug. I’d like to share it with all my students. I’d like to remember it myself. It saved me from all that painting.
There’s only one way to do something: write.