The Miss Dennis School Of Writing


September 10, 1995|By Alice Steinbach

"What kind of writing do you do?" asked the novelist sitting to my left at a writer's luncheon.

"I work for a newspaper in Baltimore," he was told.

"Oh, did you go to journalism school?"

"Well, yes."

"Columbia?" he asked, invoking the name of the most prestigious journalism school in the country.

"Actually, no," I heard myself telling him. "I'm one of the lucky ones. I am a graduate of the Miss Dennis School of Writing."

Unimpressed, the novelist turned away. Clearly it was a credential that did not measure up to his standards. But why should it? He was not one of the lucky ones. He had never met Miss Dennis, my ninth-grade creative writing teacher, or had the good fortune to be her student. Which meant he had never experienced the sight of Miss Dennis chasing Dorothy Singer around the classroom, threatening her with a yardstick because Dorothy hadn't paid attention and her writing showed it.

"You want to be a writer?" Miss Dennis would yell, out of breath from all the running and yardstick-brandishing. "Then pay attention to what's going on around you. Connect! You are not Switzerland -- neutral, aloof, uninvolved. Think Italy!"

Miss Dennis said things like that. If you had any sense, you wrote them down.

"I can't teach you how to write, but I can tell you how to look at things, how to pay attention," she would bark out at us, like a drill sergeant confronting a group of undisciplined, wet-behind-the-ears Marine recruits. To drive home her point, she had us take turns writing a description of what we saw on the way to school in the morning. Of course, you never knew which morning would be your turn so -- just to be on the safe side -- you got into the habit of looking things over carefully every morning and making notes: "Saw a pot of red geraniums sitting in the sunlight on a white stucco porch; an orange-striped cat curled like a comma beneath a black van; a dark gray cloud

scudding across a silver morning sky."

It's a lesson that I have returned to again and again throughout my writing career. To this day, I think of Miss Dennis whenever I write a certain kind of sentence. Or to be more precise, whenever I write a sentence that actually creates in words the picture I want readers to see.

Take, for instance, this sentence: Miss Dennis was a small, compact woman, about albatross height -- or so it seemed to her students -- with short, straight hair the color of apricots and huge eyeglasses that were always slipping down on her nose.

Or this one: Miss Dennis always wore a variation of one outfit -- a dark-colored, flared woolen skirt, a tailored white blouse and a cardigan sweater, usually black, thrown over her shoulders and held together by a little pearl chain.

Can you see her? I can. And the image of her makes me smile. Still.

But it was not Miss Dennis' appearance or her unusual teaching method -- which had a lot in common with an out-of-control terrier -- that made her special. What set her apart was her deep commitment to liberating the individual writer in each student.

"What lies at the heart of good writing," she told us over and over again, "is the writer's ability to find his own unique voice. And then to use it to tell an interesting story." Somehow she made it clear that we were interesting people with interesting stories to tell. Most of us, of course, had never even known we had a story to tell, much less an interesting one. But soon the stories just started bubbling up from some inner wellspring.

Finding the material, however, was one thing; finding the individual voice was another.

Take me, for instance. I arrived in Miss Dennis' class trailing all sorts of literary baggage. My usual routine was to write like Colette on Monday, one of the Bronte sisters on Wednesday, and Mark Twain on Friday.

Right away, Miss Dennis knocked me off my high horse.

"Why are you telling other people's stories?" she challenged me, peering up into my face. (At 14 I was already 4 inches taller than Miss Dennis.) "You have your own stories to tell."

I was tremendously relieved to hear this and immediately proceeded to write like my idol, E. B. White. Miss Dennis, however, wasn't buying.

"How will you ever find out what you have to say if you keep trying to say what other people have already said?" was the way she dispensed with my E. B. White impersonation. By the third week of class, Miss Dennis knew my secret. She knew I was afraid -- afraid to pay attention to my own inner voice for fear that when I finally heard it, it would have nothing to say.

What Miss Dennis told me -- and I have carefully preserved these words because they were then, and are now, so very important to me -- was this: "Don't be afraid to discover what you're saying in the act of saying it." Then, in her inimitably breezy and endearing way, she added: "Trust me on this one."

From the beginning, she made it clear to us that it was not "right" or "wrong" answers she was after. It was thinking.

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