The "Fun" of Writing
Writing this blog has turned out to be one of the best things about starting Rise Up Leadership Coaching. I had been thinking about this when I saw “Allowing Students to Experience the Fun of Writing,” by John Warner, in Inside Higher Education.
I only read the post because I don’t think of writing as fun. As challenging and rewarding, perhaps, but rarely fun. As Warner says, “I don’t like to write, I like having written.” I get immense satisfaction out of being able to express what I’m thinking. Writing, when it works, gives my thinking clarity – it brings order to my scattered thoughts.
Warner describes 4 dimensions of the process he used to write a prior post:
Writing about a subject on which he had some knowledge
Being provoked by someone else’s idea and having ideas in response
Having a known, professional audience
Not having an obvious best way to express his ideas
As a teacher, Warner bemoans having focused on “proficiency” to the exclusion of allowing students to engage in this process of problem solving. Providing them with “structural templates” short circuits the struggle, and, therefore, the rewards.
Does the fact that students can churn out five paragraph essays mean they can think?
I can recall two experiences that helped me move beyond “proficiency” in my own writing and teaching.
The first came when i was writing my undergraduate honors thesis. “Start anywhere,” said my professor. He advised me to start with whatever interested or inspired me, or whatever was easiest to write, no matter where it might appear in the finished document. I had always been taught to complete an outline before even starting to write and could write a perfect introductory “funnel paragraph." His advice was heresy, but it worked. I regret that I do not remember his name, because his advice liberated my writing for the next 40 years. I too had been focused on proficiency, rather than the process of writing.
At the same time, I had been trained never to use ‘I” in expository writing. After all, who was “I” to offer an opinion? I unlearned that from a student when I was the director of a drop-in writing center. I told a man in his 40’s, an avid learner, not to use “I” in his essays. He responded in no uncertain terms that the reason he was in college was to learn about himself. He was undertaking a very personal journey and the restriction of not using “I” was therefore ridiculous! He too taught me that proficiency wasn’t enough. A short while later, a professor in my doctoral program asked us, “What’s your burning passion?” He said that if we were going to spend a good deal of our time and energy on a dissertation, it ought to be about something important to us. At that time, I still had all my undergraduate and masters papers. I was surprised to realize that every one of them, no matter the course, was about a woman or a woman author. I had used these papers to undertake my own personal journey, but without the self-knowledge of my student.
Shortly after reading Warner’s post, I was going through a box of old journals and found notes from a writing workshop, “Psychic Survival Through Writing,” that I took in 2001 with Sonia Pilcer, author of The Holocaust Kid. My notes had this daunting list of writing demons:
Can’t get it right
Not good enough
Bad grammar, spelling
Comparison to previous work/work of others
Being forced into structures determined by others
Translating thoughts into words
I still face these demons when I write. Sonia’s advice for conquering them was “Write stupid, write ugly, write!” Kind of like my professor saying, “Start anywhere.”
I was going through these journals in preparation for my move, and my daughter was visiting to go through the things she has stored here. Struggling with something she’s been writing, she said “I get too attached to words.” This was a familiar experience, because it often feels harder to let go of words than to create them.
Another teacher, this time a master gardener helping me plant my first perennial garden, let me see anew how to think about this process. I was very nervous about making a mistake. “How do you write a speech?” she asked. “I write, and then I move sections around,” I replied. “And delete (or save) what doesn’t fit.” She pointed out that it was the same with a garden. “If the color or texture or height doesn’t work," she said. "Move the plants around, or tear them out.” So now, if I find myself getting too attached to words, I think of them as plants that need to be moved or torn out until the garden feels right.
I would never tell a student writing was going to fun, but I might say t was going to be joyful.