Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cacoethes Scribendi

I am a hypocritical composition teacher. Let me explain why.

I tell my students that I believe anyone can develop the fervor for writing, when really I believe I was born with a hunger to do it. This impulse used to be called cacoethes scribendi, often erroneously translated "the urge to write." While it's true scribendi means to write, cacoethes is more akin to madness than inspiration. I could no more ignore the impulse to write as I could to eat or breathe, and trying to explain that to people required to take a composition class has always seemed silly, if not strange and overtly sentimental.

I tell my students that six sources is enough for a research paper when I truly believe that scholars are born with a fire located in the center of their bodies that tells them when they can begin losing themselves in books and tells them again when they can stop and write. I don't read to get to know a subject better. I sink my teeth into subjects like a rabid dog tears into his last meal. I want to rip open every last bit of the subject before I put pen to paper and God help anybody who tries to stand in my way.

I tell my students the best work is carefully outlined and prepared when I secretly write like a woman possessed, letting the pages come out of me like some kind of sickness. When I'm done, I always think of Anne Bradstreet, not because I come anywhere close to her sense of irony or wit, but because she compared her finished product to a monstrous child, hideous when shown to the light of the world.

Sometimes I wonder how I could share this kind of thing with my own composition students without making them suggest that I belong in an asylum. How do you tell people who so desire structure, who want you to show them the steps to becoming a better writer, that it's an urge in the back of your mind or a fire in your core, and that, when you listen to your instincts, they'll take you farther than any composition textbook ever could?

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