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Getting Real, nonfiction by Tony Armstrong

I hate talking about writing.  I’d rather just tell you the joke than dissect the punchline.  When I first started teaching essay writing to my high school students—in the antediluvian 1990s—I thought the task hopeless.  After all, writers are like artists.  Tolstoy is a Renaissance master, Hemingway an expert in etchings, Morrison a leading Expressionist.  Me, I can paint a passable watercolor on a greeting card.  But you either get writing, or you don’t: IYKYK.  

When my ex was still my wife, she used to tell me what a lousy teacher I was because I was too hard on my students.  Some of them just weren’t going to write well, she said.  But if I can’t make them good, I at least have to help them get better.  That’s part of the job.  So, in the beginning, I dusted off my own essays and reverse-engineered them to transfer my subtle genius to my apathetic pupils.  Over the decades, I have picked up clearer labels for the techniques, worked more closely with each person in my class, but during every new school year, the dread is the same: nothing is so humbling as poring over a stack of new essays and seeing how little their writers have gleaned.  Yet somehow, as the year waxes, they all get better.  Some of them even get good.  

None of that slight progress, however, gives me any authority to encourage you to write.  All I know is this:

  1.  The Dam vs. the Desert- You’re not going to write well, with stamina and conviction, unless you have something worthwhile to say.  When you know you’re on to an idea, there’s this feeling you get—like a vast, concrete dam that is cracking under the water’s pressure—the feeling that you can’t get the words onto the page fast enough.  You’re safe, then: safe in the danger of the uncontained idea.  Too many writers settle on lesser inspiration.  They wander in the desert and turn up cactus flaps to forage for manna that may not even exist.  I don’t care how long you’ve been in that wasteland: leave it.  Desert the desert and go find the damned dam.  

  2. Taking Ownership- Who is telling you to write? If it’s you, then you’re lucky.  But a lot of times, some pezzonovante is pulling the strings, and you’ve got to write what they want.  So, good.  Do as the publisher or editor or agent or instructor says.  But do it in you style.  The writers who have the most success in my classes are the ones who take ownership of the assignments.  If you treat restrictions as burdens, then you’ll be crushed under them.  But if you think of them as puzzles to solve, you’ll have a more rewarding experience.  With all of its rules, a sonnet can be just as fun to write as a free verse poem.

  3. The Truth in the Lie- I do a little acting on the side and being on stage reminds me that everything we do—aside from sitting on the john in an empty house—is a performance.  No matter how honest or factual our writing, no matter if we are journalists or nonfiction writers, we are essentially not being real.  Even if I write, “President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Ford’s Theatre in 1865”—a fact that is well known and easily corroborated—the words only approximate what they are describing; one may take issue, for instance, with the word “assassinated,” or think that labeling Lincoln as “President” limits who he was as a person.  So, if writing and painting and sculpting and building and singing and acting and dancing aren’t real, at least make them authentic.  Figure out what your audience wants and let your words perform for them, so that they can discover a truth in a way that challenges them but also satisfies you (or you and your boss).


That’s what I’ve got to say.  If it reaches just one person…then, hell, it wasn’t worth it.  Screw it.  I write 700 words, and only one reader thought the effort was life-changing? Never mind.  Don’t bother me.  I’m going to go sit on the john and get real.  

Author Bio:

Since 1990, Tony Armstrong has been teaching writing, literature, film, and art history at North Central High School in Indianapolis.  He has written test study guides for Kaplan, McGraw-Hill, and Sourcebooks, and is a two-time winner of the Indianapolis Shakespeare Company's "Sonnet Off!" competition.  He lives quietly with his cat Zelda, as his son and daughter have grown and moved out, and his divorce has left him bitter and anti-social.