Friday, March 11, 2011

To Write or Not to Write. To Be or Not to Be.

I never had a good writing teacher, or at least not until I actually attended grad school in creative writing. I actually don’t even recall being taught to write. It was more like a checklist. Topic sentence. Check. Thesis. Check. Conclusion. Check. With some grammar tossed in.

Learning how to write was an exercise similar to memorizing facts in my schools, akin to knowing how to spell the words on a spelling test even if you didn’t know their meaning. It wasn’t something that was practiced in a genuine way with any idea of, say, an audience, a reader who you might want to move or persuade.

In the hierarchy of school subjects, writing was just a notch above penmanship in elementary school. If you had the gumption to copy your research paper from a World Book Encyclopedia and put it in a nice cover, you usually got an A (I essentially learned how to write by plagiarizing, which isn’t a bad technique, but that’s another story). It was a variation of the same in high school. To write well, to write in a probing and expressive way, to wend through nuanced meanings or titillate with mellifluous flourishes—or just write for the simple joy of it—no.

I think alliteration might have been alluded to in a random reading of a poem in high school. I didn’t hear the phrase “vivid verb” until a twelve-year-old kid I tutored mentioned it to me—this was post-college.

In fact, I learned a lot about writing while standing in front of a classroom and teaching it as a marooned adjunct community college composition professor, scared as hell as I stared into students’ searching, scrutinizing eyes. I was afraid because I’d never been trained to teach such a thing (and teacher training, not to mention a teacher community, is quite valuable in such moments, trust me, because there are few things more frightening than being a teacher in a classroom and not knowing how to do it).

I don’t mean to unnecessarily disparage my teachers—I don’t think they were equipped or encouraged to teach writing. Perhaps they had the same feeling I did when I first opened a composition textbook and taught grammar as if a comma was something one took out of a kitchen drawer, the one right next to the drawer with the colons and semi-colons in it.

Which brings me to my point: the disturbing news that the National Writing Project lost its funding last week. The National Writing Project, where I’m employed, is one of the nation’s preeminent writing organizations because of its “teachers teaching teachers” model of professional development. Teachers attend NWP summer institutes at more than 200 sites across the U.S. each year and write—because you can’t teach writing without writing yourself—and examine, explore, and demonstrate effective classroom practices, whether they involve journals, blogs, wikis, or post-it notes (the ideas and the creative uses of various tools is just amazing). And then those teachers teach other teachers in their regions through their local sites.

It’s an organization that has proven to be very effective in its 37 years.

But why is writing important? Why shouldn’t it stay just a step above good penmanship?

Writing is thinking. It’s as simple as that for me. Try it out the next time you have a thought to explore. Pause and write it down and flesh it out and you’ll find yourself testing it, adding counterpoints and layers and details, and the thought will sink into your consciousness and anchor itself there in a way that it wouldn’t have otherwise. You might even change your whole thought in the process—and that’s the definition of thinking, isn’t it? Just like a scientist testing a theory in a laboratory and revising it depending on the outcomes.

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, two scientists, explore a number of benefits of writing in their book Sparks of Genius, which analyzes the 13 thinking tools of the world’s most creative people (Robert Root-Bernstein, a professor of physiology at Michigan State was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant” himself). Writing weaves its way through modes of thinking such as “recognizing patterns,” “analogizing,” and “synthesizing” that have produced Einsteins in all fields.

For example, the Root-Bernsteins say that writing is important across disciplines because it aids such important thought processes as observation and imaging—noticing the things that often go unnoticed and visualizing things from other realms. A thinker can model a theory through words, pen keen observations (think of Piaget constructing his theory of child development with his notebook in hand as he watched his children), or develop empathy for another by entering “into the person you are describing, into his very skin, and see the world through his eyes and feel it through his senses,” as Willa Cather put it.

Cather describes more than empathy, though; she’s really discussing the genesis of a  perspectivist mindset that goes beyond the narcissism of a child’s mind. To go into another’s skin, after all, is the first step in being able to hold various viewpoints in mind and see the world in its multifarious truths. (Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of a first-rate intelligence: “the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.")

Isn’t this the kind of sophistication we want from students? Isn’t this the foundation of such traits as tolerance, grace, humility, creativity, critical thinking, understanding, and problem-solving that a democratic society relies on to function? I’d venture to say that it even provides the foundation of a constructive bipartisan approach, God forbid, so perhaps our representatives in D.C. should take a break to write about what the other side might be thinking. Gosh, how transformative that might be.

Without good writing teachers, I don’t worry about kids like me so much. I was a strange kid because I would go to the stationery store and lovingly stare at the assortment of pens and notebooks like other kids might go to a candy store and drool over lollipops. I was fascinated by the instruments of writing, genetically inclined in a peculiar way. I owned my first diary (with a nifty and necessary lock) when I was only five or six. I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t write.

Still, what I would have given for one of the teachers I’ve met through the National Writing Project to actually teach me how to write at an early age—and without copying World Book Encyclopedia entries. To feel the passion and purpose of words. To rank writing at the top of the academic hierarchy.

So I worry about the students who don’t dote on fountain pens in their free time. The mathematicians who might think that math is only about numbers, or the scientists who think science happens only in test tubes, not to mention the kids who could open a door into their souls and understand themselves in this crazy world just a little bit by writing their stories.

The Root-Bernsteins wrote Sparks of Genius in part because “ever-increasing specialization is clearly leading to a fragmentation of knowledge” in our schools. We’re losing the benefits of the multiple approaches for true creative thinking. “Learning to think creatively in one discipline opens the door to understanding creative thinking in all disciplines. Educating this universal creative imagination is the key to producing lifelong learners capable of shaping the innovations of tomorrow,” they say.

I don’t think the keys to making the world a better place require much research. If everyone ventures into the world with a true desire to explore it and their place in it and tries to articulate their experience in a meaningful way that creates dialogue, I trust that we’ll be all right, no matter one's political persuasion.

Yesterday I walked into my son’s public school and watched the kids buoyantly dash around in their wondrous world of play and thought how the school should be a source of hope, but it’s not. I turned to see stressed-out, unsupported teachers and stressed-out, unsupported parents trying to keep all of the pieces in place. We’ve lost ground each year despite the energetic efforts of all of us who now show the ragged edges of our toil. Third-grade test scores are already being used to plan future prison capacity in the state. I’ll watch a boy dash to the swings and wonder who he’ll be running from ten years from now.

When I was in fifth grade I first encountered the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and I was fascinated by the arguments on each side—and still am. I’m afraid I argue much less fervently for the power of the pen these days, though. I’ve seen the sword in all of its various guises win too many times (the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, etc., no matter who’s president).

The people with pens in their hands will be the ones making sense of it all in the end, however, whether they’re writing about climate change or writing apocalyptic novels. If the sword wins, I know those holding the swords will have to look to the scribes to understand the world they’ve created. They might even pick up a pen themselves.

So we shouldn’t sacrifice the teaching of writing. Now more than ever in our fast-paced world, we need to honor that mysterious pause that occurs when one sits down to type or write words. It’s in that pause that we discover the rudiments of thought itself, almost without even knowing it. So if you want to take out your pen and take on the swords, go to NWP Works to help out.

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