On Writing and the Elephant in the Room

Screen Shot 2015-03-15 at 8.46.40 PMDuring class this week one of my students voiced a problem that nearly everyone in the class agreed with.

“Blogging is hard and it seems to get harder every week.”

As more voices chimed in and heads began to nod in agreement, it became clear that we needed to have a conversation about writing. In all honesty, I had to agree with the statement even though it is me who gives the assignment. Writing every week is hard and with each successful (or unsuccessful) blog post the pressure begins to mount. Wrote a post you loved last week? Good luck trying to replicate that flow. Hated what you wrote last week? Best of luck trying to shake that feeling that every word you type seems to make less and less sense.

The whole thing with writing and school is that school makes writing seem so easy, so mechanical and so formulaic that when we start to struggle with it, we get worried. What we need to do instead is acknowledge the elephant in the room. Creating writing, good writing, writing that makes you feel and writing which other people want to read is hard. Along with that, there is no easy formula to teach writing. Sure, there are many methods we use to make students fear writing less, be it the 6 traits of writing or the “sandwich method of paragraph writing.” While these methods provide structure they fail to acknowledge that writing is hard, real hard. In fact, the one thing we never talk about in school is the struggle of writing. We read and re-read the classics while analyzing them to death, but never do we stop and ask, “what was the struggle behind this piece.”

Sometimes we get so lost in what we think writing is that we strip it of what it really should be. Peer revision after peer revision often turns what should be an enjoyable process into the duty of crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s. Writing though, much like life, does not happen like this. I was reminded of this over the past week as I read an interview with Jack Kerouac in the Paris Review where he says:

” By not revising what you’ve already written you simply give the reader the actual workings of your mind during the writing itself: you confess your thoughts about events in your own unchangeable way … Well, look, did you ever hear a guy telling a long wild tale to a bunch of men in a bar and all are listening and smiling, did you ever hear that guy stop to revise himself, go back to a previous sentence to improve it, to defray its rhythmic thought impact. …”

As I thought about the comments my students made on Monday and read over this quote it all started to come together. Writing is hard, really hard, and part of that struggle comes from the way schools teach writing. When we try to take an experience and mash it into 5 neat paragraphs, or we crush the original intent of our thoughts with endless revision, the act of writing becomes a chore. As well, when we fail to acknowledge the anxiety and struggle that often precedes good writing we do students a disservice.

So what’s the solution? I wish I had the answer, but after thinking it over here is what I am going to try. I am going to do my best to honor the struggle, talk about it and give it a place in the classroom. While we will still read great writing, we are also going to read writers who talk about their writing (the interviews on the Paris Review are a great place to start) and others who think about writing in different ways. Also, while we still take time to revise and go over writing, I want to encourage my students to get their writing out there and heed the advice of Kerouac when he says, “confess your thoughts about events in your own unchangeable way.” My hope is that by acknowledging the elephant in the room we can also start to tame it. This may not make writing easy, but it may just make it more fun.

2 thoughts on “On Writing and the Elephant in the Room

  1. Hey Mr. Cotter, I really enjoyed your blogpost because you described our frustration as writers. We all have been taught how to write a good essay, and that has influenced our writing forever. I personally use the MEAL plan each time I write for The Break. But, is it really necessary to use the MEAL plan in order to have an engaging article? It’s those writing mechanisms and standards for writing that have been taught to us since middle school that makes creative writing difficult. In my opinion sometimes too much structure kills creativity and blocks ideas from flowing in a blogpost.

  2. Bill,

    This is a great read. You know, over the my years of I’ve spent countless hours checking the structure of my kids work and never really thought of voice. I guess the formulaic approach to writing stifles it so we start to take it for granted. We can do countless literally analyses, write a myriad of causation and complete the most accurate of lab reports, but if we’re not showing students how to harness their voice, we’re missing out on the very purpose of writing. Writing like any other form of art is all about being able to capture unspoken emotions that lie within and give them a voice through words. It’s one of the most beautiful privileges we humans get.

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