Garbage In, Garbage Out

reading and rafting

One of my favorite reading spots.

In his book Mountains Beyond Mountains, writer Tracy Kidder reveals that his brilliant subject, Partners in Health founder Paul Farmer, reads People Magazine on airplanes. Farmer hid his magazines and referred to the rag as “The JPC” (The Journal of Popular Culture). Sometimes I’m proud of the books I’m reading – right now Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life looks impressive and heavy. I’ve spent hours with Homer and Lobachevsky. But I also love junk – The JPC and home decorating catalogs, summer beach reads and fashion blogs. I feel like I should hide my guilty pleasures. It also seems possible that my junk reading vice is harmful.

It is difficult to teach writing and to write at the same time. I whine about the time I don’t have, the energy I don’t have, the ideas I don’t have. I spend all of my time grading, I moan. I’m too tired during the semester. I use up all my good ideas on my students. I sound like a one woman pity party short on beer. But my favorite justification is a theory borrowed from the computer science world: garbage in, garbage out.

They call it GIGO (pronounced “guy-go”). The idea suggests that because computers use only “strict logic” that any “invalid input” will “produce unrecognizable output,” i.e.: complete garbage. Whiz-kid programmers know better than to open a binary file in a word processor (shout-out to my TX family!). They know what will happen if they enter “a string” when an “integer” is called for – it won’t compute.

I’ve been operating under a variation of this theory for a while; if I am reading beginning level compositions all of the time, it’s difficult to produce anything beyond my own beginnings. That’s not to say that my students’ work is garbage, but I do read a fair share of rough drafts. So I might conclude if I’m reading ‘bad’ writing, I will produce ‘bad’ writing. It seems like a good place to lay blame.

So the obvious antidote is to read good stuff too, right?

Easier said than done. I search every day for accessible but challenging readings for my students which means I read a lot of good, even great writing. I know the books and articles I teach inside and out, but I read with the mind of a teacher looking for a lesson. I don’t always have the time to sink deeply into every article or novel that I run across. I keep (both literal and virtual) stacks of articles in my office that I’ve skimmed while lesson planning. I always intend to spend more time with the essays and stories I collect on my literary hunts. But the fact of the matter is I do spend a ton of time grading freshman composition papers. I am tired by the end of the semester. I have used up a slew of good ideas in my classroom. Sometimes I feel like I need a break from analyzing words and ideas.

So I escape into the world of popular novels. I watch movies and formulaic TV shows. I read magazines and my facebook feed. I tell my students that I read everything – I love glossy, gossip magazines and Homer, Wendel Berry and Stieg Larsson. My one true skill is reading well. It is central to every part of my life – work, parenting, even my social life are all informed by reading.

In the end I’m not sure I buy the writing version of garbage in, garbage out. To write well my brain has to function well – it must be clear and creative. Writers cannot operate on “strict logic” like a computer or a statistical data set. We must pull from every part of our bookish research – from the trash and from the top shelf. Writing is not a linear equation, so our best preparation for writing well – reading – should not be linear either. We cannot experience both the ancient world and the modern paparazzi, so we have to read widely. And for fun.

When I whine about not writing well I am usually hiding from the harsh reality of the task – its hard work. Even to write poorly is difficult. I will always seek inspiration from practiced, literary powerhouses, but I also need the blank slate that comes with the pure escapism of popular fiction. I can justify my writing avoidance and procrastination, but in truth it comes down to that other acronym writers throw around so often: BICHOK. Butt In Chair, Hands on Keyboard.

~ Sarah

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One thought on “Garbage In, Garbage Out

  1. yes.. true, there’s nothing like just sitting down and doing it, my experience is somewhat different. I, too, read a ton of freshman papers, and work to find interesting things for my students to read, and in the process often find that I get ideas for my own writing. I have written on this blog site several summers ago, that I write less in the summer. It’s still true. I write more when I am immersed in writing and reading the way I am during the semester.. in the summer it is so easy to say “I’ll write tomorrow, or I’ll walk today, or…. (add any excuse)” and during the school year, I don’t have that luxury and so, when an idea comes I grab it and write.

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