Teaching Students to Write Means Stopping Self-Censorship

According to the American Libraries Association, librarians in this country received 464 requests to take books off the shelves in 2012 -- up 42% from 2011. In my mind the question is not which books did these folks earmark for ban, but why should we believe our opinions should be foisted on others?

Banning books is nothing new. Arbiters of what we should and shouldn't read have been around since the written word. The Catholic Church condemned Voltaire's "Candide," published in 1759. The United States Government said no to "The Arabian Nights" in 1873. Dubbing it "trash suitable only for the slums," the Concord Public Library banned "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" in 1885. Everybody's favorite whipping boy (sorry, Christian Grey), J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," published in 1951, has probably been kicked around more than any other work; censored, banned, challenged, shrieked at, deplored, for what some arbiters of taste deem excessive sex scenes and vulgar language. It is certainly true that young Holden Caulfield may be literature's most famous potty mouth.

I learned about the increase in judges of literary taste during the recently passed Banned Books Week (September 22-28), but the topic of what we should and shouldn't read really struck home when I visited Greg Raney's Creative Writing class at Ventura High School. I came to talk to Mr. Raney's students about the joys and business (often two separate things) of writing, but once again -- my favorite thing about my talks -- when I shut my mouth I learned something from the audience.

Before I came to his class, Mr. Raney said to me, "There are some very talented writers in the class who are thinking seriously about a career in writing. Unfortunately, their world seems to dismiss writing as a nice little hobby. I'm not trying to force them into a career in writing, but I want them to consider it as a serious option."

Already you can see that Greg Raney is precisely where he should be.

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When I spoke to the class, I made sure I addressed the subject of writing as a "nice little hobby," pointing out the power of the written word, housed in such hobbyist works as the Bible and the United States Constitution. But then I turned the talk to the subject that really interested me: what the students were working on. As you might hope, Mr. Raney's Creative Writing class is filled with the buzzsaw energy of bright young minds. There are poets, playwrights, essayists, and novelists, many of them with lovely completed works (you can -- and should -- read some of them at www.bannerbold.com). Other had works in progress. Who knows what will surface?

A student raised her hand (Mr. Raney's writers were bursting with creative energy, but they were also unfailingly polite). She told me she was working on a novel. She allowed that the story was a bit dark. She said a friend had read parts of the story, or maybe the whole thing, I can't remember (I am always a little nervous, and so forgetful, when I speak in front of groups). But I do remember the friend's reaction. The writer told me her friend said, "You can't write that."

Life is short. Generally I try not to take things too seriously. But I responded seriously to this.

Yes, you can write that I told her. In fact, you should. Often the books that matter are unsettling and disturbing and annoying to peevish folks who would prefer that the world's writers just write one long history of "Little House on the Prairie." "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl" was banned in some places because some readers felt the story of World War II and the Nazi concentration camps was a "real downer."

I told this young lady that she should write what she wanted to write and pull no punches (not always easy). But I could tell from the way she told her censorship story -- in the tentative way of someone still unsure of their footing in the world -- that her friend's words had lodged firmly in the place that should be the writer's alone. I am not saying that older writers are beyond being swayed. Nor am I saying there's no place for constructive suggestion (I prefer that to criticism). But I am saying that, in the end, what ends up on paper is nobody's business but the writer's. And then the business of absorbing those words is the choice of the reader. The decision of can or can't is one person's alone.

Since I have raised the topic of banned books, it's interesting to note some of the books that provoked outrage and indignation in 2012. "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini (reasons: homosexuality, offensive language, religious views, and explicit sex), "Beloved" by Toni Morrison (violence, religious views, explicit sex), "Captain Underpants" (yes I am serious, although it is hard to be) by Dav Pilkey (offensive language), and -- surprise, surprise -- "Fifty Shades of Grey" by EL James (offensive language, explicit sex).

Explicit sex. Is there any other kind?

"Fifty Shades of Grey" (please, I know you've heard of it), offers an interesting peek into the world of opinion and taste. There are thousands of examples. Here's one. Last year, Brevard County in Florida pulled E.L. James' erotic novel from the shelves of its 17 libraries (although they allowed that demand for the novel was high) after word reached them that the book contained explicit sex. A county spokesman told a reporter, "We don't put pornography on our bookshelves." This voice for censorship branded the book "mommy porn," then admitted to not being sure what mommy porn was. He also admitted he hadn't read the book.

Like it or not, this is how mankind has often worked.

If you have a heartbeat, criticism stings. In 1899 Kate Chopin wrote a novel called "The Awakening." It is the story of a woman named Edna Pontellier, who leaves her family, commits adultery, and discovers her true self as an artist. When the book was published, it met with scathing reviews (Immoral! Scandalous!). Although "The Awakening" is now deemed an important work in feminist literature, Kate Chopin never wrote another novel.

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "The Grapes of Wrath," "The Great Gatsby," "Brave New World," "Ulysses" were all banned and challenged, not to mention raked over the critical coals. What if Samuel Clemens, John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, and James Joyce had never again taken up a pen?

The dark side of the power of words. But, even here we must remember. The critics have the right to their words. They just don't have the right to take the words out of your hands.

And so I told the young novelist in Mr. Raney's class that she should write what she wants. We both know this is easier said than done, but right there in the classroom she took the first step. She forgot, for a moment, her friend's demand. She began to talk about her story. Her face lit up. I recognized the look, though it is beyond words. The same light shone in the faces of her classmates as they talked about their stories, poems, and plays. It felt good just standing in their light.

What should these bright young minds read and write?

It's not the pertinent question.

Who, but them, should decide?

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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