Why are fifth graders better writers than college freshman? Pay attention. This is a murder mystery.
The victim in question is the Muse. You were born with one. It’s insightful, imaginative, and one hell of a good storyteller. Here’s the thing: Your muse sucks at spelling. It can’t diagram a sentence, nor does it know how to properly format a query letter. So, on the road to Writer, your muse is going to need some help.
Luckily, the early years are kind. Recognizing the travails ahead, elementary schools often ensure the Muse is well-nourished, fed with peer encouragement and various media of expression. The Muse may even emerge from 5th grade stronger than when it arrived. It then shakes out its long hair, and holding hands with its musely brothers and sisters, skips down the cobblestone lane into middle school.
Little does it know, middle schools are built on Unmarked Muse Burial Grounds.
And by the time this creative sparkplug of a 5th-grader gets through twelfth grade and into college, they will likely have had all originality, voice, and desire to write sucked out of them. Prose, lifeless. The Muse, dead and buried. These murders happen daily — in middle and high school classrooms across America. Just ask Bryan. You may be wondering: How do we stop it? Who exactly should we lynch in this situation?
Problem is, the crime scene is messy. Legislators, test-designers, principals, school teachers — their fingerprints are everywhere. So let’s trot out the usual suspects. C’mon out, Standardized Testing. You, too, Direct Instruction and No Child Left Behind. Where were you the night the Muse died?
Are they guilty? Of being bad influences, perhaps. But Muse Crimes are ultimately perpetrated by individuals. In my experience, most teacher-on-Muse violence happens when a student’s ability to string words together becomes dramatically emphasized over that student’s ideas, voice, or passion for a subject. This is like valuing the beauty of a bottle more than what’s inside. And while most 6th-12th grade language arts teachers can tweak structure, spelling, and the five-paragraph essay with the dexterity of an ocular surgeon, they handle the Muse with all the loving care of Lennie Small stroking a puppy.
“Spelling is important! Structure is important!” you cry. Indeed. But not worth killing a Muse over. Remember: Spelling is easier than resurrection. And that’s true at any age.
Unfortunately, the Muse’s difficulties don’t end with school. If, by some miracle, the Muse has escaped the confines of K-12 education in a manner no less spectacular than Andy Dufresne’s 500-yard climb to freedom, it often seeks refuge in someone’s basement.
Say, oh . . . the basement of a book store. With a critique group.
“No! No, Muse!” you cry from your seat in the theatre. “Not the basement! Don’t go in THE BASEMENT!”
But the Muse is desperate. Ragged, unclothed, and starving. It wants so badly to be embraced by this new brotherhood. Kind people who will clothe it and nurse it back to health, show it the way to Writer.
Most of these basement-dwellers have also lost their muses. And they know it. They are a bunch of Donald Sutherlands from the last scene in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And there is a pervasive critique-group belief that the only way to resurrect a dead muse is to kill and drink the warm blood of a living one.
Take Eric, for example.
Eric showed up at my former critique group with three fist-fulls of shaggy beard, unwashed hair, and a drunk-around-the-campfire swagger. He’d obviously spent time living on the street. He sat and listened through his required three critique sessions, then turned in his first story. The group’s members were strangely giddy that night, sharpening their cleavers and drooling as they walked out the door with his manuscript.
I wasn’t innocent of this.
When I started reading, I was initially struck by the horrendous formatting. Parts were in Papyrus. The title was 18-point bold and underlined. TWICE. Where the hell was this man’s 8th grade Language Arts teacher? Unfortunately, the author interrupted my enjoyable tongue-clucking with something I didn’t expect.
Fascinating ideas, insights, and philosophies gleaned from a life well-lived. Eric’s muse had obviously escaped death at an early age by fleeing formal education on the back of its master. It was alive — gloriously alive! And it did what muses do best: It spun a story that was honest, imaginative, and WORTH TELLING.
In brief: Eric could write as well as a fifth grader.
So the critique group tore him to pieces.
It was the moment they’d been waiting for – thrilled, like so many in the K-12 realm, because it’s much easier to attack what doesn’t work than to preserve what does.
Eric never came back to the group. So at least this story has a happy ending. He wasn’t about to keep a muse alive for 40 years just to sacrifice it at our table. He hung his head and murmured his thanks and smuggled his muse out under his coat at the end of the night.
Most students aren’t so lucky. They have to come back to the table.
The older I get, the more I hear how crucial it is to have voice, voice, voice in publishable fiction. And voice comes entirely from the Muse. So if you want a kid to be a good writer, preserve THAT, if nothing else. It’s the only piece that’s truly theirs, and it’s irreplaceable.
So teachers, principals, and critique groups remember: Only you can prevent Muse Crimes.
Start by acting locally. Help feed and shelter muses in your own neighborhood. Don’t laugh at derogatory comments about other people’s muses. And for God’s sake, if you see someone killing a muse in your presence, do something about it.
Your muse will thank you for saving a life. Chances are it can use the company.