Writing For and In the Present
Updated: Jul 5, 2021
I recently came across Several short sentences about writing, a book by Verlyn Klinkenborg that I read a few years ago. It’s a must read for every English teacher: it reminds us of what we’re really doing when we ask a child to write. Here is one of my favorite moments:
The central fact of your education is this:
You’ve been taught to believe that what you discover by thinking,
By examining your own thoughts and perceptions,
Is unimportant and unauthorized.
As a result, you fear thinking,
And you don’t believe your thoughts are interesting,
Because you haven’t learned to be interested in them.
There’s another possibility:
You may be interested in your thoughts,
But they don’t have much to do with anything you’ve ever been asked to write.
The book made me think hard about how to get students to love writing. I work really hard to get them to love reading, but I forget that it’s equally important to get them to love the process of writing. There’s nothing worse than hearing a groan from the bak of class when we announce an upcoming essay. We’ve all read thesis statements that rephrase or repeat parts of the question we ask. They do it because they don’t see the value of the question or task or they do it because they fear being wrong. They desperately want to say the right thing, according to what they think we want.
I try to assign as much creative nonfiction as I can (think Best American Essays) and typically end my poetry and short story unit with creative writing. Instead of interpreting the literary techniques used by writers, they use the tools they just studied – metonymy, simile, hyperbole, consonance – and have fun with the language. Play around with it. I tell them to write an essay about any topic connected to the literature. Or they can create any character they want and create any plot they want. I tell them, it’s your world to build.
We need to teach that writing is not a task or graded assignment, but that it’s an act of affection. It’s a gift the writer gives to the world to help make sense of it all. It’s how we enter the consciousness of everyone around us. Our students do that first by reading and then imagining the truth behind the writer’s words and the psychological motives of a character. Then, with their new understanding of old worlds, our students set out to say something about the present.
According to T. S. Eliot in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, the writer’s “historical sense … is … what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time.” He argues that a great writer must read all “the dead poets and artists” if they want to “write with his own generation in his bones”.
Like anything else, we need to find a balance. A balance between making sure students respect tradition and convention … the introduction and thesis, supporting sentences, the interpretation of evidence, a logical progression of arguments, meaningful conclusions … and also learn when and how to break the rules. They need to be aware of the rules and remember to not let the rules suffocate their creativity.
At the end of last year, I asked my seniors to create a video essay about how it feels to graduate. Without referencing or citing any novels, poems, essays, articles, or podcasts, they tried to answer the question “Who am I?” In a nutshell, they talked about what they learned in the past and what they want for the future.
Our students should be historians, journalists, critics, and storytellers, but they should also be philosophers that are free to talk about everything. Philosophers that know the past, but write for the present, and are present. We can put students on the mountainside with a breathtaking view, but we can also push them into the mosh pit of existence. Let’s let them get lost in the crowd of life and then watch them emerge, ready to write.
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