Unlikely Influences: What Daniel M. Bensen learned about writing from teaching ESL

Unlikely Influences is a series of weekly blog posts about how writers can learn the tricks of their trade in odd places. Most are from guest authors, but I’ll pop in from time to time too. This week’s installment is by my agency brother Daniel Bensen.

“BlankChalkboard” by Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine – Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.


 What I learned about writing from teaching English

by Daniel M. Bensen

As a teacher of English as a foreign language, my professional time is mostly spent listening to people and thinking about communication. Honestly, it’s hard to think of a better job to prepare someone for writing fiction, as it’s forced me to learn how to:

  1. Elicit response

Back in teacher training, we talked a lot about pyramids and spider-webs. Most trainee-teachers want the class to be a pyramid with themselves at the top. Either the teacher is talking, or a student is talking to the teacher. No! Bad trainee! The students aren’t paying to hear you practice your English. They’re paying to practice English, themselves. What they need is a spider web with you in the middle; they need to spend as much time talking to each other as possible.

So something I had to learn early on is how to “elicit response.” And you can’t do that unless you listen to people. I was recently teaching a conversation class and the topic drifted to music piracy. I have an opinion on the subject, but I caught myself and said “I think…well, what do you think?” Aside from, you know, doing my job and helping my students practice English, I got a look at the issue from other perspectives — a useful tool if you want to do good research and write characters of diverse minds.

Give the other person some space to fill with their response, whether you’re having a conversation or writing a book. Actually, those are the same things.

  1. Show, don’t tell.

Way back in training, we actually had classes about giving examples. It’s something you need to do a lot in an EFL classroom, either to define a word or illustrate a grammatical instruction, or just to add redundancy to a sentence so that the students can still grasp the meaning even if they don’t know all the words. I’ve learned to never just say something like “what appears to be the past tense is in fact the subjunctive aspect and it indicates a hypothetical situation.” I have to give an example: “If I HAD a million dollars I WOULD quit this job and take up writing science fiction full time.” I’m sure some of you zoned out during the boring technicalities of the explanation (what-junctive who now?), but you were all on board for my example, weren’t you? Yeah, you were.

I had a middle-aged Japanese student in a group class in Sofia, who spoke neither English nor Bulgarian very well, but communicated better than anyone in the class. When I asked her about her Easter vacation she said, “I go…see the…baa baa! Gxxh!” She drew a line across her throat. What an image! We talked about that for the rest of the class.

I try to be similarly explicit in my writing. Don’t write “someone slaughtered a lamb.” Write the sound the lamb made when it died.

  1. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes

Just today I had a student who said “The winners of the contest will be given a present. No! Sorry! I mean, ‘The winners will be give a present.’ No! I will be give the winners present. I will be given a present…” and so on, each successive sentence descending ever further into a Chthulhian abyss of meaninglessness.

Anyway if you meant to do it, it’s not a mistake. It’s style. I once asked a student to define “loophole” and she said “a door in the law.” Wow! I gotta use that phrase! Or how about the Bulgarian “professional twist” which means the tendency for dentists to watch your teeth while you talk, consultants to order everyone around, or language teachers to geek out about linguistics. When asked about crocodiles, a Chinese student of a friend said “We don’t have this monster in our country.” It’s true! Crocodiles ARE monsters! And this one student told me “I am disagree.” And he was right. He WAS.

“Which is better,” I ask my students, “a person who talks a lot and makes mistakes, or a person who makes no mistakes but never talks?” Obviously, the first option is better, but a lot of us can’t let go of perfection, and thereby (oooh) we never achieve it.

  1. Treat foreigners as real people

There was a Hungarian student in my school named Zoltan. Not being beholden to American fantasy naming conventions, the Magnificent Zoltan was an entirely unremarkable student, and spent every day obstinately refusing to pull flaming doves from his coat pockets. Of course, my other student, Typhoon, was from Turkey, where Typhoon is just as weird a name as it is in the US.

What’s normal in a given culture? What’s weird? What’s debatable? I once had a class with two Russian teenagers: a white boy and a Korean-Russian girl. They both agreed that fast cars were awesome and that a girl was likely to cheat on her boyfriend if he wasn’t in the same room as her. But they disagreed strongly about politics. The white boy was angry that Putin had made himself impossible to vote out of office. The girl was glad; if Putin left office, he was likely to be replaced by someone running on a white supremacist platform. I learned something that day.

Not to say that these conversations are all roses and sunshine.  I’ve talked to some people I wouldn’t normally…want anything to do with. When I was sitting in my classroom and my student said something like “So black people are meant to work and white people are meant to think,” I couldn’t just flip the table and leave. I had to be a professional, and remember why the two of us were in the classroom. So I “elicited response with an open question.” “Why do you think that?” I asked, and sat back and let the racism wash over me. It wasn’t a fun experience, but I’m sure as hell prepared to write a racist character now. Same goes for vapid teenagers, absentee fathers of various stripes, and people from all across the political spectra of a bunch of different countries. It’s all grist for the mill.

Everyone thinks that they are basically normal, and that their actions make sense. Characters that don’t have this internal justification won’t seem like real people.

  1. Communicate

The most life-changing lesson my work has taught me is that words don’t mean anything. People mean something when they use words.

A student came into class angry because he’s a business owner and the government has enacted new restrictions on him that cause “an absolutely un-loyal competence.” Huh? But I thought for a moment and said “Maybe you mean the new law makes for…a totally unfair competition?” Yes, he agreed, that was what he wanted to say. Or there was the essay in which a student wrote “Teachers should be kind and not strict to their students if they know what’s good for them. Here come my arguments.” After checking my apartment for lurking hit-men, I went ahead and assumed that he wanted to write something less threatening.

Figuring out what someone wanted to say is a helpful skill when dealing with other Anglophones, too, especially critiquers. “Okay, you may have said ‘it’s crap like this that makes me remember why I never read fiction,’ but what you meant was ‘I am a totally inappropriate reader for your work, and I apologize for wasting your time. Have a cookie.'”

On the language-production side, it’s also useful to remember that word-meaning is arbitrary and idiosyncratic. Even native speakers, when placed in front of a keyboard and told to make an entire world using only words, demonstrate how much it is possible to fail to communicate. In one science fiction book, I read the line: “Of course I know that! Do you think I’m ignorant?” What the author should have written was “Do you think I’m stupid?” because that’s what most Anglophones would say in that situation, regardless of how the dictionary happens to define the word “ignorant.” “Do you think I’m stupid?” will elicit a response from a reader that “do you think I’m ignorant?” will not.

Eliciting responses is what books are all about, so don’t think about what a word means, think about what you mean.

  1. Separate out what works from what doesn’t

I have read a lot of terrible essays. There was one that was supposed to be about global warming except the student misheard the prompt and wrote four paragraphs about “global worming.” The first sentence: “it is important for worms to be all over the globe.” But I couldn’t just write NOPE on the top of the paper. I had to find something praiseworthy in the essay (and actually, as an essay about the benefits of worms, it wasn’t so bad.)

The biggest difference I notice between professional writers and amateurs is that the amateurs either like or dislike whole books. Writers like or dislike scenes or sentences or individual words. In other words, writers read novels like English teachers grade essays.

That’s a useful habit to cultivate for a couple of reasons. There is no book so terrible it doesn’t teach you something, if only by negative example. At the same time, even the most masterful prose has its brush strokes, the seams you can dig your nails into and pry the prose apart. Then you can see how the glorious machine works and you can copy it.

At least, I hope that’s how it works.

Daniel M. Bensen was born in Chicago and has since lived in Maine, California, Montana, Japan, and Boston. He currently lives with his wife, daughter, and in-laws in Sofia Bulgaria, where he teaches English as a second language. Dan writes stories across the spectrum of fantasy, science fiction, and alternate history, but all deal with the theme of clashing cultures, usually with romance and humor. He is represented by Jennie Goloboy of Red Sofa Literary Agency. Dan’s fiction has been published on 365 TomorrowsScifiideas, and the Prehistoric Times, and he is the editor for the English-language version of GAME TALE (by Nikola Raykov, this year’s Bulgarian winner in the “Best creator of children’s sci-fi or fantasy books” category at Eurocon 2014). Find him on his website or on Twitter.