Thursday, September 3, 2015

In the Writing Studio: A Love for Teaching English Composition

In the Writing Lab

By David Hartley Mark

            It is the Sound of Creativity: about ten pairs of hands pattering at keyboards, writing an essay entitled, “All About Me.” It is the first of a series of essays that my Basic English Class will write, in partial fulfillment of the class requirements. This is no delving into Shakespeare or or Hemingway, though we will read the latter’s “Hills Like White Elephants” later in the term, a particular favorite of mine, an episode in the Eternal Struggle of Boy and Girl.

            Thusfar this term—it’s the end of only the first week in a month-long course—we have discussed how to grapple with Run-On Sentences, the bane of the Post-Modern American Scholar, that and the Comma Splice: the particular dilemma resulting from atrocities such as:

            We went to the movies afterward we went for pizza.

Many of my students had believed that adding a comma to the above would straighten the entire mess out, thusly:

            We went to the movies, afterward we went for pizza.

But they would have been wrong. I apprised them of their choices:

--Use a period—my “down and dirty” solution, the quick and easy fix to most issues of this type;
--Use a comma with a subordinating conjunction: but, or, nor, because, for—though this last is best suited for fairy tales of the “Little Red Riding Hood” genre:

            “Where are you going with your basket, Little Girl?” asked the Wolf.
            “I am going to my Grandmother’s, Sir,” replied Little Red Riding Hood, “for she is ill, and cannot get her own groceries.”

Finally, there is the semicolon, the Lamborghini of punctuation, not to be used where a comma (the pickup truck) would be better employed:

            We went to the movies; afterward, we went for pizza.

It requires two complete sentences, meaning that both must have a noun and a verb—we used to call these a subject and a predicate, but no longer.

            I adore the semicolon: it combines the stopping power of the period, together with the push-forward of the comma, and so shows exactly the correct amount of both progress and hesitation. When describing the semicolon’s charms and abilities to the class, I always use the illustration of the young couple in the night club, finishing their pre-engagement meal, with the eager young man hiding the engagement ring in his pocket.

The adoring couple gaze at one another over the flickering candles, wholly and entirely in love, and then, reaching his hand into his jacket, the boy asks his opening question:

            “I love you; do you love me?”

--Which question combines exactly the right amount of forwardness and hesitancy: he is revealing enough vulnerability to press his suit, but holding back enough so that, on the slight chance that she rejects him, he will have saved face. This entire exercise, properly described, never fails to create the correct mood to communicate the proper usage of the semicolon.

            And, while I sit and write, so do my students. This is the first formal essay they will submit. It is a revelation of their personal lives, and an entryway into their thoughts.

            “Writing is among the most powerful things one can do in one’s life,” I tell them, “there is a remarkable connection, a serendipity, between the brain and the fingertips when one writes. It is a feeling like nothing else in the world, a feeling of enormous control and release.”


            I am honored to be their teacher. It is the finest profession in the world.