Middlebury, Vt. — ``Most good writing, most really good writing, takes off when somebody is in a position [where] they don't know what they're going to say next or how they're going to say it,'' says author and teacher Ken Macrorie. ``At that point, frequently, they explode into a good expression.'' White-bearded, expressive, and keenly energetic, Mr. Macrorie is a professor emeritus of English at Western Michigan University. Since retiring he lives in Santa Fe, N.M., and spends six summer weeks teaching in Middlebury College's Bread Loaf School of English.
Mr. Macrorie's ``Telling Writing,'' first published in 1970 and now in its third edition, is widely seen as a seminal work in a national redefinition of how to teach writing.
The book opens with a short chapter called ``The Poison Fish,'' which coins a term for bad writing: ``Engfish.'' Macrorie doesn't pin the blame for Engfish on lazy, unimaginative students. Teachers and textbooks, perhaps the American educational system as a whole, are as responsible as anything for poor student writing, he says.
Even composition textbooks are filled with what Macrorie calls ``phony, pretentious language,'' and students are expected to churn out the same lifeless dross.
It is Macrorie's conviction that everyone has a writing voice, a way of self-expression that is far more powerful and effective than anything students accomplish by mimicking teachers and textbooks.
``Writing Freely,'' the second chapter of ``Telling Writing,'' describes a technique he has found useful for tapping that inner voice. The student simply writes rapidly for 5 or 10 minutes, so rapidly that there's no time for planning, editing, or trying to sound important or significant.
Results vary. Some ``free writing'' is chaotic or too unfocused to be worth pursuing. Fine, says Mr. Macrorie. Keep trying. Other attempts will contain sparks that can be developed into workable pieces: poems, essays, stories, or dialogues. ``Telling Writing'' and a later book, ``Searching Writing,'' are filled with examples of student writing that are arresting for their honesty: truthful voices capturing the startling facts of experience.
For Macrorie, honesty is not only at the heart of good writing, but of good teaching as well: ``I would say . . . to teachers: `Don't try to act like a teacher; don't try to be a star on stage. That's not your job. Your job is to be yourself and to be honest so that you bring some honesty out of . . . [the students] and some confidence out of them.' ''
In his sixth and most recent book, ``20 Teachers,'' Mr. Macrorie interviews ``outstanding teachers.'' To Macrorie, an outstanding teacher is not necessarily one who is popular with students, approved by principals and deans, or an accomplished scholar.
Rather, he says, they are ``enablers'' whose good work is reflected in students who do ``good works.'' Of the teachers he interviewed, Macrorie says, ``What came out most strongly -- no matter what they're teaching -- . . . was that they had amazingly high expectations of their students.''
Mr. Macrorie believes the common view of a good teacher -- ``someone who gets up and acts beautifully and projects beautifully in front of group'' -- is wrong. He thinks ``a teacher is somebody who half the time or more is sitting in the corner'' while the students actively engage in projects or interact.