Welcome to ‘Between the Lines’ – interviews with teachers, writers and writing teachers on specific aspects of their craft.
In this week’s conversation, Elisabeth Dahl (no, no relation) discusses the transformative power of words, with a special focus on teaching revision.
‘I worry for people who don’t write’
Author, illustrator, editor, educator: Elisabeth Dahl’s writing experience spans genres and professions. The through line quickly emerges in conversation – a deftness with, and delight in, words that is as contagious as a yawn. And a knack for detail that brimfills anecdotes with life and color.
The Baltimore, Maryland native grew up near Johns Hopkins’ main campus, where she completed her undergraduate degree. She returned to the city as an adult, and lives a few miles from the hospital where she was born.
“As a child, I loved school right from the start,” she writes in her online bio. “By the time I was in ninth or tenth grade, one thing had become clear: Analyzing stories and crafting sentences lit me up in a way that history, math, and the rest did not.”
Speaking on the phone, Dahl credits this to her high school teacher Joyce Brown (with whom she still exchanges emails). “She approached us as if we were college students. When we started [James] Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, we spent 20-30 minutes talking about his decision to use ‘the artist’ instead of ‘an artist’. To think this was even a question! It would have been one thing to debate writer versus artist, but to look at the article – the versus an – was incredible. As it turns out, [Ms Brown] led us to understand it made quite a big difference.”
Understanding the big differences a small lexical choice can makes is a sine qua non for a writer-educator. “I’m a better writer because I’ve taught writing,” says Dahl, who worked for Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth for the better part of a decade. “I was still making the same mistakes emerging writers were making: the stakes weren’t high enough, or I was padding the stories. Seeing these problems [as a teacher] was sort of teaching myself at the same time. It helped me incorporate the lessons into my own writing.”
Textures of language
For Dahl, a reciprocal relationship between teaching and literature was established early; her mother and grandmother (with whom they lived until Dahl was eight) were elementary school teachers who made reading a central part of her young life. They also gifted her with a fascination for the stories embedded in artifacts and moments. Her favorite space, as a child, was her grandmother’s walk-in closet. “It smelled like mothballs but had its own, not just aroma – aura. It had a history. It was a special occasion if I got to try on old dresses, like the one my mother wore to her junior prom. There was a scarlet red [dress], like what a Spanish dancer would wear, with tiers, strapless. It didn’t look like any of the other clothes in there. Jane Eyre had her red room; I had this red dress.”
The aural and visual qualities of words beguiled her: “I liked that if you said a word like ‘fork’ or ‘salad’ 25 times to yourself, it became nonsense, weird, you could almost hallucinate about it”. Another female relative, an aunt, was a graphic designer. Tracing pages in her books on hand-lettering introduced Dahl to the “tactile aspect” of language.
These formative experiences of words and stories as real and imaginative, concrete and abstract, primed Dahl to thrill to the challenge when Ms Brown assigned Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener. “A light had turned on. I remember standing in her empty classroom, during a free period, talking about it with her, totally energized. I [still] don’t know if I know what the story means,” she says cheerfully. “But I love it. It’s like a Rorschach test.”
Inspired by Ms Brown’s example, Dahl prioritizes space for students to encounter epiphanies by “helping them get a new perspective, become a better observer, or express themselves better. As a teacher, you’re another voice in this person’s head. You have to take it seriously. You don’t know the other voices in their lives, all you can do is be respectful and help them grow.”
But why learn to write any more – aren’t there machines for that?
“Because to have a good relationship with writing is to have a good relationship with your own mind, your history, the world around you,” Dahl responds. “I worry about people who don’t write regularly. The memoir I’m working on has taught me so much about things I’ve been thinking about for 54 years. By laying out the words, revising the words, reconsidering the words, I’ve developed new attitudes towards certain moments, and people. It’s wonderful to be able to do that.”
How do you create an open, accepting environment where students think beyond the binary of right/wrong?
One assignment I designed is based on Amelia Gray’s short story ‘Monument’. In it, the people of a town came to clean up a graveyard, then something changes, and they start destroying the graveyard, almost like Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’. I had students pick a character and rewrite the [third-person] story in the first person. We talked about what that changed, what opportunities it created, what it shut down.
This helped them realize that a piece of writing is many, many choices. It loosened students up. It was an act of playing around, like they might approach improv.
How do you push students beyond ‘good enough’?
Try to present revision as an opportunity. What if you wrote in a different point of view? What if you sprinkled some of these details throughout the story?
For students who are good but could be better, I call upon their sense of a challenge, their curiosity, intrigue. If a student is a tennis player, or pianist, say, I remind them how many hours they spend on the court or at the keyboard. Writing requires the same. It’s a lot of time, a lot of effort, yes.
I always tried to teach that we’re all on the same continuum. We’re writing. We’re writers. Getting started, revising, these things are always challenging.
How can students develop a feel for revision?
They need to be reading, copying out passages as a way of internalizing what good writing is. I encounter people who say, ‘I know I could write a novel’, then you ask what they are reading and they ‘don’t really read’. That’s never going to work.
How does revision differ between fiction and non-fiction?
With non-fiction you have to think about fact checking, accuracy, but the process is not all that different. You’re still asking about tone, voice, consistency, how the narrative is laid out, what is the best way to tell the story, whether you’ve grabbed the reader…
How do you approach teaching revision with different age groups?
With younger students, don’t talk down to them. With all ages, nurture their curiosity about where a piece of writing might go. Again, trying to relate writing to other endeavors, whether playing sports, or working at a grocery story. Remind people that revision isn’t just something we do in writing. We’re always revising things, always being asked to spend more time perfecting or altering, it’s part of being human.
What is a sign that the process is working?
When students say, this went a different direction, or, the character surprised me by doing this. That is exciting. It shows they are engaging on another level, not just trying to bang out the essay or the story.
The piece of writing that changed your life as an adult?
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel. She explores, in a graphic novel, growing up, the truths that were presented to her and the truths she had to discover later. It was fascinating, her level of honesty. I get most of my books out of the library, but I went straight to the book store and bought that one for full price.
A classic you love to teach?
‘Why I Live at the PO’ by Eudora Welty. It’s an unreliable narrator story, very subtle, hard to pull off. Every time I read it, I see new things.
A book about writing every writing student should read?
On Writing by Stephen King. Although I’m not a King fan, this book is so good, especially if students are interested in writing books and getting into publishing. It is full of good advice, very practical.
A book + film adaptation combo you love?
Ian McEwan’s Atonement – that was a great movie and a very good book.
A living writer you’d love to hang out with?
Ann Patchett. She co-owns a book store called Parnassus Books in Nashville; she has a wonderful personality, she’s smart, she’s a good writer.
Your perfect writing space?
My house, where I live and write, is suburban, there are beautiful trees but always people walking past. I like to have people around.
If you could publish anything, what would it be and why?
It would be nice if the memoir I’m writing eventually becomes a book. What got me started was realizing how much I loved reading memoir. There is something about a well-crafted, honest memoir that stands out; they are always engaging.
- Web: www.elisabethdahl.com
- Twitter: @ElisabethDahl
- Dahl’s middle-grade novel Genie Wishes