Writing Without A Net

My older son sent me the first draft of his essay discussing the hyper-protective cooperative principle in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” the other day. If it’s been a while since you studied the hyper-protective cooperative principle (or if you’re like your friendly, neighborhood English professor and can’t always remember these terms at the drop of a hat), the basic concept behind HCPC is that the digressions, nonsense, or irrelevancies in a work of literature are, in fact, worth your attention.

To a certain extent, the HCPC argues that one of the markers of good writing is that everything matters. There is an implicit agreement that the author’s writing will be genuine and the reader’s hard work will be worth the effort.

Anton Chekhov, the 19th century Russian playwright and short story writer, argued, for instance, that if a gun appears on stage in Act 1, someone better get shot before the play ends. To not do so, he might say, would be disingenuous and unfair to your audience.

I’ve written before about Eliot’s poem. “The Waste Land,” and I say this without meaning to sound dramatic, is one of the world’s great poems. It is also a lot of damn work to understand, but the readers’ effort, according to the HCPC (and my son’s paper) is worth the effort. Eliot isn’t being difficult just because he wants to show off and prove he’s smarter than the rest of us.

My son begins his paper, though, not with a discussion about Eliot’s poem but with a reference to the woods near Burkittsville. For all you horror movie fans out there, you probably get the allusion to The Blair Witch Project. What, you ask, does a 1999 horror movie have to do with a 1922 poem? You would have to read the paper to find out, but if my son does his job right, the seemingly irrelevant reference should be vital to understanding his essay about HCPC and Eliot’s poem. It’s both an application and explanation of the concept.

What struck me as most interesting about my son’s paper, though, wasn’t the complexity of the task but the willingness to take a chance. He is, after all, merging a discussion of a contemporary horror film with a work of great literary import.

As someone who has read more than his fair share of student essays, my first thought when I read the paper was that the approach here was outside the norm. (Actually, my first thought was, “I’m going to steal that idea for next time I teach the poem.”) The easy and safe way to approach something like Eliot is via metaphor or irony but the truly simple approach is carefully avoiding anything that might be wrong.

I was reading my son’s essay at the same time I was reading through the Pew Research Center’s Portrait of the Millennials titled “Confident. Connected. Open to Change.” While I’m not a big fan of generational behavioral trait surveys, they do often provide us with a broad, general understanding of age cohorts. Anyone with high school or college-age children should click over and take a look at the study.

Any large generational study will offer interesting contradictions. This generation is happily connected and more than willing to live in the fish bowl of Facebook and Instagram, but 70% also have tattoos hidden from the public and they understand privacy boundaries better than most generations. It’s a generation that is less religious but more socially engaged; they face awful economic and employment opportunities but remain almost blissfully optimistic; they’ve seen divorce rates stabilize yet they marry later than any generation; they’ve grown up in an incredibly permissive culture yet teen pregnancy and drug use are dropping.

And they are the most sheltered generation in history. Forget rubberized playgrounds, this is a generation of “Megan laws . . . [and] Code Adam — you know, some kid is lost at a Wal-Mart. Bam, all the doors shut, no one gets in or out until that one child is found. But we’re very used to this now — throughout our society and culture — this new protection.”

Most important, they do not chafe under the protection; they expect it. They feel special and entitled because we’ve made them, well, special and entitled. In some ways, they are open to change because we have done such a good job of sheltering them that they feel safe. If the change doesn’t work, they know we will be there to bail them out.

Yet, for all that safety, education, and optimism, we are also watching a generation that is almost counter-intuitively unwilling to take chances. Change happens: they don’t necessarily push change. They are, in the words of John Mayer, “waiting on the world to change.”

Academically, I see this in my classes. At the beginning of every semester, I now have to discuss academic rigor. The goal, I tell my students before an exam or assignment is not to avoid being wrong. The goal is to be correct without the fear of being wrong. Academically, we are held to high standards of proof and analysis.

Education and learning is about failure and leaving the shelter. You have to walk across the wire without a safety net. Instead, too often, I read papers or answers that are neither right or wrong. Like too much public commentary, the answers and essays I read play it safe, working very hard to avoid being wrong. Everything begins to read like a Wikipedia post: long on facts, every side represented (regardless of their intellectual merits), with virtually no actual commentary.

What’s the poem mean, we might ask? Well, the student writes, there are many ways of looking at Eliot’s poem.

That’s not an answer. That’s intellectual laziness. This is a student waiting, expecting in some respects, someone to tell them which of those ways is most important, best, and safe to follow.

Note here that I’m not necessarily being critical of either parents or our current generation of young adults. There’s nothing inherently wrong with providing shelter, safety, and raising a generation of confident people.

But we also need to find a better balance between security, self-esteem, and a willingness to write without a net.

My son’s paper doesn’t have the answers to understanding Eliot’s poem. He’s still, despite his willingness to step out on that intellectual limb, an 18 year old writer learning how to put an argument together, but as both his father and a fan of Eliot’s poem, I’m proud he’s willing to let go of that tree trunk and do the hard work necessary to say something worth reading.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

2 Responses to Writing Without A Net

  1. I didn’t need to read far before knowing this was very Ivory Tower.

    • John Wegner says:

      Thanks for reading, or, I guess, reading however much you read. I’m not entirely sure how to take the comment, though. I’m assuming there is a snide dismissal of the blog post in your reference to the Ivory Tower. Clearly, I didn’t make the point clear that the value of writing well and without fear is relevant not just to high-minded college professors. The reality is that what we do in the Ivory Tower, by asking our students to strive for correct answers, is demand that students assert, offer proof, and analyze. We ask them to avoid gross over-generalizations that lack any connection to reality or fact. These are the very skills any good citizen might need. Asking students to do such things while examining difficult works of art and applying complicated theories allows them to demonstrate critical thinking skills that, if we look at our current situation in Washington, too many people are clearly lacking. I will proudly wear the Ivory Tower tag and willingly state that those of us in that Tower are far more demanding than many living in the supposed “real world.” If, however, you were complimenting me, then I appreciate it, but I suggest in the future you more fully develop your ideas so that those of us sitting high on our intellectual perch can manage to understand them.

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