I’ve been catching up on old episodes of the Nerdist podcast, and I listened to an episode from May with Michael Fitzpatrick from the band Fitz and the Tantrums. I bought their album More Than Just a Dream earlier this summer, and it’s so great that I’m a little sad that I didn’t discover them earlier.
Fitz was talking to host Chris Hardwick about his long career in music. The band Fitz and the Tantrums has only been around a few years, but Fitz himself is in his early 40s and has been in the music industry for so many years. He talked about what it was like to finally be recognized for his music and how hard he and his band have had to work. He also talked about finding his voice. He’s been a singer and played instruments and been trained in so many styles of music that he wondered what his authentic voice was. When he moves between genres of music, how does he know what’s really his own voice? It seems like he’s finally figured that out with this current band, but it’s also interesting to note that all of those different styles and influences actually formed the voice that he’d been looking for the whole time.
His comments also reminded me of Glenn Miller. In the biopic The Glenn Miller Story (which I watched many times as a kid), Glenn Miller (played by the incomparable Jimmy Stewart) plays in a lot of bands that he eventually leaves because they don’t have the right “sound.” He walks out of a performance of “Moonlight Serenade” because he didn’t like the way the singer interpreted his music. When he finally finds the right musicians, he finds the right “sound,” and he makes the music he’s always dreamed of. But once more, it took all the experience of the “wrong” sound or the “wrong” voice to get him to the right one.
These past two days, I’ve met four classes full of students that I’ll be teaching this semester. Seventy-five students that I hope to steer towards being better writers and towards finding their own voices. I’m realizing that it might take a lot of “wrong” voices to get them there. How do I, as a writing instructor, dedicated to my craft and to the rules of my craft, encourage them, lead them without stifling their voices? How do I find a balance in correcting, teaching, encouraging? I’m going to have to teach them how to do the same thing that Fitz and Glenn Miller did: search for authenticity while learning from those who have gone before; take risks to learn about themselves while understanding they might crash and burn.
I’ve been thinking about my own writing process. Writing my thesis was one of the greatest things I’ve ever done, one of my proudest accomplishments to this day. It didn’t happen overnight, though. It took a lot of reading, researching, learning, scratching out, starting over, across many years of scholarship, to get to that level of writing. I read articles and critiques in an effort to sound more scholarly. I imitated, but I also became what I studied. By learning from others’ writing, I figured out how to become my own writer. I figured out how to love the research and the analysis and the thinking. And, hopefully, I learned how to teach some of that to other people, too.
This is the joy and the burden of teaching writing. Writing is forever a search for authenticity, a search for identity, a search for meaning. Writing is difficult and time-consuming and back-breaking. Writing is frustrating and demanding. But writing is also empowering and coercive. Writing demands reflection and empathy, a knowledge of self and others and the universe, a quest for truth and life and answers. Voice and craft can exist side-by-side without contradiction. This is the lesson that I ultimately want my students to learn.