Dispatches | December 06, 2008

Frank Gannon, in his inspiring essay “English 99: Literacy Among the Ruins,” writes about trying to teach basic writing to an assortment of college freshmen that consisted mostly of bored/oblivious white suburbanite traditional students mixed in with a few shell-shocked Bosnian refugees.

In the piece, which originally ran in Harper’s, Gannon describes how he taught that “writing was an activity more than something that can be studied,” and how he tried to get his point about writing across through simile:

“[Writing] was like juggling. Like riding a bicycle. Keep doing it and one day you wake up and you can do it. If you don’t quit, you will get it. It is like golf. It is like tennis. It is like the hula hoop. It is like jumping rope. Like riding a bicycle.” 

I do this, too, not just to my freshman composition students (second drafts due on Tuesday, people!), but to some of the ones who ask me, “So, how’s that ‘writing thing’ working out for you?” If they’re jerks, or if I don’t have to see them regularly, I usually say, “One moment,” take out my cell phone, and pretend to talk to someone I haven’t just received a call from until they go away. If they’re in my family, or they’re in my (amazing/gorgeous/brilliant) fiancee’s family and therefore in my soon-to-be-family, I cannot resort to this manuever. I have to engage, and almost invariably I come out with both barrels blazing simile like, I don’t know, some kind of simile gun or something.

“Well, Uncle Don,” I begin, exactly as I have the numerous other times I’ve been asked this during small talk, “writing is like _________________________.”

Here’s an incomplete list of my previous writing comparisons, off the top of my head.

  • rock climbing
  • playing an instrument
  • practicing a martial art
  • breaking a board
  • assembling a bookshelf from Wal-Mart without looking at the instructions
  • running a race
  • training for a race
  • swimming
  • being a lifeguard
  • mowing the lawn
  • being sent to the principal’s office
  • driving across the country
  • changing a tire
  • taking an overseas flight
  • steering the Titanic in an alternate universe where the Titanic doesn’t sink
  • getting dumped by your girlfriend
  • preparing for a garage sale
  • tying and walking a tightrope
  • walking through fire!
  • starring in a play
  • having Christmas all year long

Moments ago, after I asked my (sweet, incredible, gifted) fiancee what she thinks writing is like, she muttered, “having a nervous breakdown.” It should be noted that she is currently studying for her Ph.D. comprehensive exams, and quite possibly her remark was more an update than a reply. For all I know, she didn’t even hear me ask. 

So on that note, I’ll sign off, leaving it instead to you to complete the simile.
“Writing is like _____________________.”