Thursday, May 9, 2013


I have a strange memory of a writing teacher in high school.  She was recently divorced and insisted on everyone calling her Ms. Stout--the emphasis on the Ms.--and she had short brown hair and piercing eyes.  I think they were blue.

Two very vivid things I remember from her class: the first is grammatical.  If we wrote one passive voice sentence, we automatically got a C, a second would earn us a D, and a third would be an automatic F.  Needless to say, I quickly learned what passive verbs looked like.  I remember combing through my papers on the school bus, frantically looking for passive verbs like they were lice or fleas that needed to be picked away.

The second memory regarded a dark blue book called the LAW book.  This was short for the Literary Art of Writing, or at least I think this is what it was called (passive voice intentional) because I have tried to find it since and cannot.  Who knows what the name really was.  Maybe a former student of Ms. Stout bought them all off of Amazon and had a ceremonial burning of the LAWs.

And that is what Ms. Stout called this book.  It was the LAW book, and we would joke about how it was the Bible for our essays.  After the posting about rules and guidelines by Keith, I thought I might mention this LAW book.  The book talked about avoiding first and second person, of course, and the book had many other rules for writing essays, like avoiding "wise" at the end of words, never discussing the "nature of" something, and so on.  Most of the rules involved brevity and omitting extra words.

In the end, all of the LAWs can be broken.  If you can break a law or rule or guideline in an intentional and useful way, then, I think, this is one of the inherent truths that writers do: learn established forms and test the limits to find out what is interesting, engaging, and creative.

And of course, happy teachers' week!  Take a moment and remember one of your favorite teachers.


  1. Ok Heather, I took a moment to remember. English and grammar for me were boring and rough. I didn't get it. I still don't understand where to put all those commas. The teachers I remember the most were the ones who were the toughest, or were the funniest (there were none), Or my coaches. If a teacher can figure out how to dangle that participle in an interesting way, you have the students in the palm of your hand.

  2. One of my favorites was in high school. We called him the Pontiff. I don't remember why, but he was the one who really got the idea of writing into my head. We didn't have LAW books, but we did have a "line" template that we placed under typing paper so that our lines of CURSIVE text would be straight. Yes. I'm old. The Pontiff would also enter the room with his arms outstretched making noises like a B-29 in flight. He was a loon, but he made me want to write.

  3. Wow, Miss Schwartz, my American Lit teacher as a junior in high school. I had always enjoyed reading books--as an only child in a relatively quiet household--in my younger years and even managed to only watch a few shows on the newly arrived color TV in the early 60's, but I had usually just read for the simplicity of the story and for characters I could pretend to be. Then came Miss Schwartz--clearly a Miss, no Ms available yet in the early sixties--a proper, thin lady, yes a lady, with ashen hair in a style we likened to our grandmothers', and prim glasses, and blouses buttoned always to the neck. Somehow she caught my attention and I began to read and remember and understand a few of the delights she seemed to thrill at--always, with restraint, though--in her sharing with us of the first, easy ledges of the depths of American Lit. Once only, she closed her eyes and gave herself to us, open, naked in her emotion as spoke to us a passage from a story or novel--how I wish I could remember what it was--and she leaned into it and became the narration, something of loss and lament, of sadness and missing, and her voice came alive into the role of the narrating character and the mourning; and I--along with everyone else in the room--stopped breathing. At first, I thought maybe she was overcome by her sadness at the passage and its message...but then she finished reciting, lowered the unseen book, and grinned at us all. The sadness, the loss, the yearning, had all been there on the page, yet up till then, I had missed it all in my hurry to find the next plot twist. Her reading had unlocked an insight into the dimensions of the black on white, and I tasted a first hint of addiction. Thanks, Ms. Schwartz.

  4. LAW might mean "language arts and writing". we live in the information age so it shouldn't be that hard to figure it out. you can find your old school required reading, or the teacher herself as likely as not.

    my english and writing teachers in grade school were all pretty nuts, but largely open and more care-free. but, i did begin junior high in seventh grade with a class that taught nothing but grammar and punctuation. and, the teacher was first generation american with a deep german background. so, she was almost literally a grammar nazi. i can't remember her name, but she was very large and very loud and very angry. and she burned many writing laws straight into my brain forever (this comment aside).