Notes Toward a Rhetoric of the Curmudgeonly

Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee
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When my daughters watched Sesame Street -- the t.v. show or one of the movies -- back when they were little girls, and I watched with them, my favorite moment came when Oscar the Grouch sang "The Grouch's Anthem" in a movie called Follow that Bird (Click the image to go YouTube to hear/see the song.):

Oscar the grouch singing from trash can the grouch anthem, american flag in background

I love that song and believe fully in the spirit captured in the lines, "Don't let the sunshine spoil the rain/Just stand up and complain."

And today it is raining and it is Monday, so it's a grouch's kind of day, no sun to complain about. And it got off to a grouchly start too, which made me happily grumpy: I woke to the sound of the garbage truck trundling down the street, with the trash-container-grabber reaching out, squeezing, lifting, dumping, and dropping the plastic barrels. I woke and realized our container still sat in by the side of the garage and not at the curb. So I rushed up, threw on a raincoat and boots, rushed out of the house dressed like a flasher and dragged the barrels to the curb just before the truck reached the house, much to the mirth of the driver.

And then to make me even grouchier, I find myself out of my favorite breakfast meal -- potato chips and beer, forcing me to rely on brandy and toast instead.

So I am home and grumpy and writing. And that to me seems a good combination for getting work done, don't you think? Sometimes writing, or rather, some kinds of writing, works better with a sour disposition: love poems, self-evaluation performance reviews, letters to editors, revising a prior draft, writing the utility company to dispute a bill . . .

It's not that one wants to be mean, but that one wants to be unsentimental, unblinded by the sun, unfooled by a blue-sky view of things. So the rainy and cloudy days, oddly enough,  when making certain kinds of judgments and finding the words to go with them, inspire, for grouchy curmudgeons, clarity.

And it is good practice, writing while grumpy, for putting a writing teacher into students' shoes. I write today on some projects forced on me, assignments, if you will, that seem to me pointless busy work even if on one level I know they are not. Certainly the work is dull. But it has to get done; goes into the h.r. grade book; will be read and scored. I'll be sorted, ranked, and tracked by it. And like many students, I'll be content with passing it in and getting it behind me and then forgetting it. Like so many assignments before, it will be writing forgotten, left in the box outside the professor's door, never to be picked up.

I'll save my energy and enthusiasm for more important-to-me projects, one of which is asking how do I avoid giving my students work that makes them feel like I feel now?

What I want to avoid is lecturing to them about how sometimes you have to write things, do work, that you don't like writing, don't care a lot about, and so you have to suck it up and do it because blah, blah, blah. Of course that is true, and they know it and I know it. So maybe the thing to do is come up with a pedagogy for teaching writers to write when they do not want to write. A lot of time we focus on making assignments attractive, trying to find ways to tap intrinsic motivation while at the same time meeting curricular outcomes. But what if we acknowledge that we all sometimes write under grouch conditions? Is there a way to celebrate that as well? Maybe developing a rhetoric of genial subversion, like the Advanced Placement students who wrote, then crossed out so examiners could not help but see and read the phrase but couldn't count it in scoring, "This is Sparta ( ).

The right kind of grumpiness, grouchiness, curmudgeonly-ness can be puckish fun, for the writer, so that at least the tedium finds relief, and that relief, that steam-let-off, might be just the thing to make the writing work a bit better for the poor sap who is required to read what was required to be written.