“A master can act without doing anything, teach without a word.” – Chinese fortune cookie
These words are an extraction from section two of the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese text for religious and philosophical Taoism, but I didn’t know that when I pasted the inside of a fortune cookie to my computer. I simply thought that since I earn most of my daily bread by teaching that maybe someday I’d figure out how to practice the concept of conveying knowledge “without doing anything.”
The idea seemed subversive, if not lazy, but my reflections on the matter didn’t reach clarity until writer and Professor E. L. Doctorow died recently at the age of 84. Doctorow is best known for his literary achievements, a dozen novels and a host of literary prizes.
His work, such as The Book of Daniel, Ragtime and The March, is frequently assigned in classes of literature, especially in pricey East Coast universities, Doctorow’s own region of expertise and residency. When he died from complications brought on by lung cancer, his praises were sung by every major publication written in English.
For me, he’s the master who taught “without a word.” But I must admit that when I took his Craft of Fiction course at New York University in the mid-1990s, I didn’t quite “get” his non-teaching method.
I was puzzled at the time about how the course content fit the title. I expected instruction on how to write artful fiction, the actual process of constructing it, but that wasn’t his approach. We read a book each week and talked about what we read, but he didn’t offer much in the way of advice.
I remember feeling relieved that he didn’t subscribe to the writing strategy of those who dash off an entire novel in a few weeks and then go back to salvage what works and discard the rest. My own writing was slow and tortuous, so when he said that he never moved on to write a new sentence until he was satisfied with the one before it, he gave me license to continue the turtle-like process.
Another time he told us to not pull the gun until the character was ready to use it. I remembered that comment a few years later when I was writing a novel that included a gun and a threat of murder. The original draft included a reference to the gun in advance of the threat, but when I was editing it, I remembered his words and took it out. I discovered how correct he was on that point.
There wasn’t much else in the way of writing instruction. By the end of the course, however, I realized that his reading list contained a common thread – darkness, insanity, all kinds of feverish passions, some written by writers with suicidal tendencies. We read early Gothic literature, Edgar Allen Poe, Jack Kerouac, Jayne Anne Phillips, Virginia Woolf and Franz Kafka, who identified himself with a giant bug. We also wrote an analytical paper and a creative parody of one of the assigned writers’ style.
I chose to mimic Kafka. My character battled a monstrous, flying cockroach – in New Orleans, of course – with an atomic cloud of bug spray. I had hoped for helpful comments when the story was returned, wise words I could carry into the future, but none was there. Along with a grade of A-, someone wrote a single sentence in red that faulted the story’s lack of true parody style.
That experience led me to ponder his teaching strategy. I realized that good fiction from his view is intense, but a complete understanding of his perfect subversion didn’t come to me until he died. His death prompted me to read every interview that he gave, and finally eureka struck: He didn’t believe that the craft of fiction could be taught. He apparently didn’t think much of graduate writing programs either, even though he taught in them for much of his career.
A blog called Rebecca’s Reviews, written by another former Doctorow student, said it all. When asked what textbook he would suggest, she quotes him as saying: “I have not read a craft of fiction book that does not make me want to vomit. Tell them to go read Chekov. Especially Chekov.”
I doubt that Doctorow, who spoke so eloquently, used the word “vomit,” but otherwise the quote captures the essence of his beliefs about how to learn the craft of fiction. A student of the craft must read all the best writers, especially the experimental ones. Passion, originality and deep reflection drive memorable fiction, he might have said, not plot, not structure, not contrived outlines.
A 2008 interview posted on FORA.tv offers insights about such views. Doctorow and his interviewer discussed “outlaw” writers, those whose work took divergent paths, such as Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, a novel without a plot. At one point, the interviewer asked Doctorow if he was himself an “outlaw” writer.
Doctorow hesitated, apparently disinclined to seem boastful, but when pressed finally answered: “I like the idea of being an outlaw, so, yes.”
He taught the outlaws, identified with them and adapted the same kind of non-conventional methods in his classes. He also consulted the Tao Te Ching he told other interviewers, so maybe teaching “without a word” came straight from The Tao.