Saturday, 30 July 2011

A Tale Of Two Writers

Once upon a time I had a student I will call Chung-ho, an attentive, thoughtful student, if not the brightest, and not shy about speaking up in class. Chung-ho's English language education had been interrupted due to family problems, and he had joined the class late, but he easily managed to catch up with his classmates. In fact, for all that he had missed a lot of classes, he was still one of the best listeners and best readers in the class.

But he was not the best writer.

Because I had many opportunities to hear my students' experiences, I was familiar with Chung-ho's background, so when I sat down with one of his compositions, I already had a pretty good idea what it would be about. Which was a good thing, because at first, his stories were full of muddled, run-on sentences that almost reduced me to head-scratching confusion. Chung-ho left out subjects, verbs, and conclusions, struggled with subordinate clauses, and -- even though he was nagged and constantly reminded -- persisted in using the present when he should have used the past. In fact, he was unwittingly perverse about this: on one occasion, he wrote a long story about how his grandmother chased a snake into the outdoor privy. Throughout this story, his grandmother raced about dizzyingly in the present -- She run outside quickly. She call to the my brother for aid. She tell us keep watch for snake. She strike a snake with using cudgel. But in his last sentence when he should have used the present, here is what he wrote: Everytime we family union I told this story my cousins laughed.

But Chung-ho was a good student, and over the months, his grammar improved remarkably. Eventually it was possible to read his stories without stopping and wondering what the hell was going on. His commitment to learning was incredibly gratifying and inspiring. And yet his stories were real yawners, dry as dust, even the ones I asked him to rewrite, which I knew should have been great. After reading them, I used to feel a combination of irritation and anger: how could anybody screw up a story involving a grandmother, a snake, and an outdoor privy?

In the same class, I had another student, Lu, whose English was considerably less accomplished than Chung-ho's. Lu's problems were manifold: whereas Chung-ho could manage subordinate clauses, however clumsily, Lu could not, and saw no need to change his ways. Lu not only ignored the past tense, he saw no need for it. Auxiliaries struck him as a waste of time. When I gently reminded him once that the correct form was Did you finish? and not You finish? he was all spluttering indignation: "Every people understand You finish? Why need did finish?" My arguments for clarity and consistency did not convince him. Lu breezed through reading exercises, paying little attention to detail or general meaning; he frequently scored zero, but was remarkably blase about this. He did little to add to his vocabulary -- Chung-ho kept long lists of new words he had discovered -- and, when he could not get his point across, was more apt to put this down to his interlocutor's denseness than his own ineptitude.

Lu's writing was, predictably, appalling. But here is the amazing thing: he was a gifted storyteller. Even with his awful grammar, restricted vocabulary, crazy syntax, and ridiculous spelling (he once spelled the word 'apartment' four different ways in a 250-word essay), you could follow what he was saying because his narrative pulled you right along. Unlike Chung-ho, who felt the need to offer a useful moral preamble and ending to every story, Lu would put in a question that led you in and made you want to read more: Why all peoples scare of the darkness? He got right to the point after that, with gripping, fascinating, hilarious stories: about the time he walked through a graveyard drunk with his younger brother, his first visit to an American supermarket, the time he accidentally went into the women's toilet. I read his stories with breathless appreciation, even forgetting the terrible grammar and spelling in my haste to find out what had happened. And his endings never disappointed: American supermarket have many thing some think too much thing, but one thing Chinese market have American market not have: Chinese market interested and exciting. American supermarket not exciting. Also: no bad smell. Chung-ho's ending points got swallowed up in long ramblings about whether snakes were evil or useful, how grandmothers pulled their weight even in this modern age, and why it was best to be on the look-out for snakes even in one's house. (I would give you a sample of Chung-ho's endings, but I do not want to put you to sleep. Also, not enough room.)

It seems so obvious, and yet it's oddly elusive: that the key to telling great stories is learning how to match Chung-ho's diligence and commitment to form with Lu's storytelling genius and pithy prose. Often, the mechanics of writing got in the way of Lu's innate ability to tell a story. As a non-native speaker and writer, he must have felt frustrated when his stories weren't appreciated by people other than his EFL teachers. And all too often, the prosy dullness of Chung-ho's stories must have kept them from entertaining his audience. As a teacher, this drives me crazy. I know how much my students have to offer, and my biggest joy is knowing that they can leave the classroom with enough English to connect with people who aren't English teachers. As a writer, the fact that they could not share their gifts often made me think about my own writing. In fact, it still does. Recently, I revisited an old manuscript of mine and found more of Chung-ho than Lu in the ending. So back to the drawing board until my story pulls readers right in and keeps them gripped. Until it is interesting and exciting. (Also: no bad smell.)


Anne M Leone said...

Yep, I'm much more of a Chung-ho type writer than a Lu writer myself! I tell myself both types are useful, but I often wish I had a bit more of that storytelling gene.

Charles Gramlich said...

That's part of "nature" side of the writing coin, I think. Some folks just know how to tell a story.

MG Higgins said...

Like Anne and Charles, I think some people have storytelling ability and others--like me--have to work at it. REALLY work at it. Bummer. I'd rather be a Lu than a Chung-ho.

Anonymous said...

I just finished editing a family history for a client--a project that doubled in size by the time I invoiced and could have been very tedious. Instead, it was a joy to work on because one of the grandfather's surviving cousins and 6 of the 7 aunts and uncles who contributed were natural-born storytellers.

I wonder if Chung-Ho grew up in a didactic totalitarian culture but Lu had an easier time, maybe not so much in the thick of things.

C.R. Evers said...

It's a difficult mix. Storytelling and skill . . . both can be natural, both can be improved by learning and time.

great post!

Mary Witzl said...

Anne -- When I first started writing seriously, I was convinced I was a Lu. Now I see that I've got more than my fair share of Chung-ho. I've spent a lot of time around Lu types, though, and lately I've been studying them carefully to see how they do it. That will definitely come in handy as I finish this last ending.

Charles -- You've got the storytelling gene, and so does Travis. Part of me thinks there must be something about the proximity to Texas. I'm sure there are people from that Louisiana/Arkansas/Texas area who are crummy storytellers, but I'm still waiting to meet one.

MG -- I've got to work at it too: I let details clog up my stories and get in the way of things. My brother-in-law is a natural storyteller. I watch him pause for effect, judiciously find just the right word for maximum amusement punch; his stories are great and he almost always brings the house down. It's inspiring. And it's also sort of depressing.

Anne B -- You get the best writing projects! I've been doing a few interesting ones lately, but nothing so delightful as a family history.

I often wondered about Chung-ho's family. He had a difficult aunt -- that's all I remember. Somehow I'll bet they used stories to get morals across instead of to stimulate and entertain. Lu definitely came from a totalitarian background, but he'd managed to step his way around it.

C. R. -- Thank you. I'm hoping that I'll eventually crack both before I run out of time!

Kim Ayres said...

You get a lot of this in Photography too.

A really engaging photograph usually has good technical skills and an interesing narrative.

But photography sites on the internet are littered with technically perfect photos that have no soul.

Lkewise there are some photos that really shouldn't work because technically there are quite appalling, and yet the power can be immense. I'm thinking particularly of Robert Capa's iconic image of the Normandy Landings in WWII - click here

Robert the Skeptic said...

When my daughter Amy was teaching English in Japan one of her students submitted a writing assignment containing a sentence that completely shocked her. Writing about her family, the student said she and her sister really liked cooking snakes in their home. Amy inquired and so discovered the student actually meant to say "snacks".

Robin said...

Now I want to end every story with "Also: no bad smell".

Pat said...

Luckily I'm no teacher because I actually find it charming the roundabout way foreigners speak English - particularly Greeks.
I marvel at their ability to make me understand, find myself following the same speaking patterns and imagine I am speaking Greek. Heady stuff!

Christina Farley said...

A great use of real life events! It is hard to find the things you need and things you don't need in a story.

Adrienne said...

Love that ending. :)
I've enjoyed stories with little plot just because the writing was so entertaining, and badly written stories because they had an exciting plot. But a permeating bad smell - that's something else again!

Marcia said...

LOL at that last line.

The right mix of both IS elusive. But as a writing teacher I've found, time and again, that people typically do better with story ideas than with the writing itself. And that will keep them unpublished unless they can conquer it. Writers may be storytellers, but storytellers are not always writers.

upasana said...

stumbled upon your blog and couldn't stop reading! This post really made me think and go back to my older posts - im more of chung ho myself, and surprisingly, all my favorite posts are Lu posts :)

Anne Spollen said...

Love the way you see the two elements in the students! I think some people just know which parts to put in and which to leave out. That's the mark of a great story teller (to me)

Carole said...

I can't imagine anything you write would smell bad. Great story. Not all writers are created equal.