Somewhere deep inside each of us is a love for ruin.
Harken back to your childhood days, if you don’t believe me. I can recall many a sunny afternoon at Misquamicut Beach as a boy, constructing a huge sandcastle on the tidal flats, taking breaks only to cool off by body surfing in the mighty waves that Rhode Island specialized in and Connecticut could not match (small thanks to Long Island). What was the last thing I did when Mom and Dad called for my brother and me to pack up? You guessed it. Utterly destroyed my sandy masterpiece. With relish, yet. And all while holding off my older brother who, like a circling hyena, wanted in on the kill, too.
Sound familiar? Ever had the honor of being the one to cave a house of cards, tip the first of hundreds of dominoes, rip open dozens of meticulously-wrapped Christmas gifts in record time? There, then. Say hello to your destruction gene.
I thought of this while reading the part of Tom Newkirk’s The Art of Slow Reading that talked about learning by destroying. “Wrecking a Text,” he calls it, and the whole idea is to focus students on a writer’s word choices by, well, destroying them. As an example, Tom shares an assignment created by one of his colleagues, Rebecca Dawson. She has her students select a mentor text to work with — an excerpt they particularly admire. Then she supplies these instructions:
“1. Type out two pages of your mentor’s writing that you admire.
2. Then retype it and wreck it. For example, make the fresh writing dull, flatten the active verbs, make specifics general, turn interesting similes and metaphors into clichés, tell instead of show, make the word choice less interesting, summarize dialogue and scenes.
3. Write a paragraph, explaining what you realized about your mentor’s writing from doing this.”
Tom writes, “Many of her students describe the sacrilegious pleasure they felt in degrading the prose of admired writers — but they pay attention to style in a new way.”
A bit like hiding the pill in a glob of peanut butter, isn’t it? In the words of a famous British educator, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” One of Dawson’s student’s reflections (Step 3) is shared in the book. She destroyed a Bill Bryson excerpt, then wrote, “[One example] of Bryson’s technique of showing and not just telling appears when he describes the William Faulkner Museum. ‘It must be unnerving to be so famous that you know they are going to come in the moment you croak and hang velvet cords across all the doorways and treat everything with reverence.’ The image of the velvet cords across the doorways makes it much better writing than saying, ‘They will make your house into a museum’ because I got a picture in my mind of someone putting velvet across my doorway.”
Obviously this exercise needs to come after a lot of writing lessons built around the vocabulary and practices of the trade. Students need to recognize what they’re pulling apart so they can brag about it properly, after all. But, as the above excerpt nicely shows, it can lead to great discussions about the tricks in a writer’s toolbox — in Bryson’s case, how the concrete specific of the velvet ropes is used to show the abstract concept of fame. Readers embrace specifics over abstracts every time. They already know the wisdom which William Carlos Williams brought over in his well-read wheelbarrow: “Say it — no ideas but in things.”
In my teaching of the marking-up of texts, I’ve added the idea of students selecting a “really cool line, stanza, or paragraph” because they seem to have an instinct for it, even if they are struggling readers. It follows, then, that students would embrace the ownership that comes with selecting a favorite passage from their independent reading book, an assigned story or poem, an opinion column, you name it. That alone is a teaching moment. Then, to get them to rewrite it, to tear the master’s work apart and make it dull — how simple it that? Finally, the exercise calls for students to pour some meta into their morning cognition by explaining why transforming the brilliant writing took all of the effervescence out of it and made it flat.
I can picture students in groups sharing their before/after paragraphs and thus reinforcing what good word choice is all about. Reading their reflections would help, too, as they would be using the vocabulary of good writing to explain their decisions. We already know that students love to learn from each other because they don’t hear each others’ voices enough in an academic setting. Usually it’s us they have to listen to.
Refreshing, isn’t it? And it brings to mind all of the careful planning that goes into dynamiting old buildings and bridges, all of which huge crowds gather to watch. Destroying can be serious business, people. And this idea proves it. I can only dream that something I write will someday be worthy of the wrecking ball.
Variation: On a smaller but equally effective scale, Newkirk notes that you can also have students wreck punctuation. In this case, they simply copy out a sentence that uses some form of punctuation for effect. Then they rewrite it more conventionally, so it is as flat and as exciting as an overcooked flapjack when you’re out of maple syrup. Finally, they write a brief account of what their destructive handiwork has wrought. How did they take the wind out the master sentence’s sails — by the mere removal or changing of punctuation, yet?
Wrecking text is all built on one of the bedrocks of Newkirk’s book. He believes that copying or typing out mentor texts is a powerful means of imprinting good habits on young writers’ minds. Though an old tradition dating back to monks copying the Bible, transcribing work was not only done by many classical masters such as Erasmus but by many modern writers as well. Joan Didion, for example, states that she typed out Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, word by word, as a novice writer in high school. Didion describes Hemingway’s prose as “…very clear direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.”
Sound heavenly? Maybe this practice will be the start of another Joan Didion, then, and under our own tutelage. You know the famous rap on teachers, after all: Those of us who can’t (become famous writers), teach (others to be).”