If A Tree Falls In The Woods, Will Robert Frost Be Surprised?
We promise magic, we teachers of writing. A kind of electromagnetism that will connect writer and reader; a moment when words, ideas, and intentions collide and BAM: meaning explodes.
Once upon a time, we teachers asked kids to write on paper, pass it in, then we would hand it back. Then we asked kids to write for more than just the grownups. We asked them to write for each other. Early on, in many classrooms, that happened with photocopies of student work, dog-eared loose-leaf pages shoved through a copy machine by a teacher who just wanted to go home. It got easier when the writing was spit out of a printer, easier still when there were enough computers for kids to conference via a shared document online. Now, writing often happens directly online, on blogs or social media platforms.
I post to this blog with the hope that my pieces will be read. It’s a digital equivalent of the tree in the forest: if a writer publishes a blog post and doesn’t know who– or if anyone– has read it, can magic exist?
You can put people in a circle, hand around pieces of paper and ask the people to talk about what’s on that page, but there’s no guarantee a meaningful exchange will occur. There’s no guarantee that writer or reader will even care. Anyone can go through the motions. That’s just as true in the digital age as it was in the time of the pencil.
Once, in a grad school seminar on teaching writing, something was amiss. Students brought writing to class, met dutifully with their writing groups, waited to be dismissed. These weren’t behaviors I’d seen with previous classes. I was used to seeing students listen intently to one another, ask questions, talk, listen some more. I was used to having to force them to stop so we could bring class to a close. And, I was used to writing that was taught with energy and passion. That was not what was emerging.
I asked them to fill out an anonymous questionnaire about the responses they were getting to their writing. Several questions, a scale of one to seven with room for brief comments. Basically, were they satisfied? The next class, I showed the results. How did they want to proceed? I told them what I wanted, but I’d also decided the bottom line belonged to them: we’d drop the writing groups. My condition was that they had to practice some of the approaches we’d discussed; they’d have to invest in their writing.
It takes time and energy to care about writing. To care about someone else’s work. I got it– they were exhausted from grad school on top of teaching. But, one of my teaching axioms comes from the NY State Lottery: Ya gotta be in it to win it. The corollary: you can not like someone in you group, but you have to love their writing. I sent them back to their writing groups to decide if they were in.
I’ll let you guess the end of the story.
I still use the fourth chapter of Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers as a touchstone for any writing class I teach. That chapter, called “The Teacherless Writing Class,” is a messy summary of how a writing group or partnership takes shape. Elbow writes,
To improve your writing you don’t need advice about what changes to make; you don’t need theories of what is good and bad writing. You need movies of people’s mind while they read your words….
And you must write something every week. Even if you are very busy, even if you have nothing to write about, and even if you are very blocked, you must write something and try to experience it through their eyes. Of course it may not be good; you may not be satisfied with it. But if you only learn how people perceive and experience words you are satisfied with, you are missing a crucial area of learning. You often learn the most from reactions to words that you loathe. Do you want to learn how to write or protect your feelings?
Elbow’s description is for a teacherless class. In a teacher-y writing class, you may not get to decide exactly what you write. But if a teacher has made a clear explanation of the challenges of a piece, the thinking-deciding process she hopes you’ll experience as you enter it, the choices of how to get there are still all yours.
You read a piece, you tell the reader what happened to you as you read. You point to words, phrases that stuck in your head. The passionate ones, the flaccid. Then you summarize: “main points, main feelings, or centers of gravity.” Then a summary in a single sentence. Then one word that seems to capture what’s happening. Then a word that isn’t in the writing. The writer gets to decide. Then you tell: what happened in your head while you were reading. Finally, you show. Sometimes you can’t put your perceptions into words, so you use different approaches, often metaphorical, to show your impression.
NO THEORIES. No rules. No drifting into stories of personal experience. Just the writing.
And the writer? The writer shuts up and listens. And then takes what she’s heard and revises. The most important rule of all is this: THE WRITER DECIDES.
The writer always decides. Most important to me as a teacher: the writer can say why they’ve made their choices.
You can see why it makes me crazy to hear people say peer editing.
Was it Robert Frost who said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader?”
No surprise, no magic.
I didn’t expect this post to go in this direction. I thought I was going to write about how making students blog about their responses to a chapter in a novel or answer assigned questions is a travesty. How it undermines every possibility that web-based writing offers. How it squashes any hope of magic.
I’m in the midst of a huge life change. I’ve moved to the opposite side of the country. I’m managing the renovation of a one hundred year old house. Almost every attempt I make to get into schools and work with teachers or teach at a local college comes to nothing.
What do I want this blog to be? Why do I want to write?
I think it’s the magic. Not of being read, although that can be astounding.
I think first, there’s the magic of language. The sound of vowels, the rhythm of consonants. The way words, together, make images.
There’s magic in shaping the world where I live, then fully inhabiting it.
Images CC0 via pixabay.com
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