Writerly Ways of Being

I’ve spent the better part of my life helping young adults become better writers. In all that time there has been no exercise, no trick, no clear and easy path to a better final draft. Sure, I can point to easy tweaks to tighten up writing like “Focus first on verbs–strong, specific verbs create stronger, tighter writing.” But on the whole (and I’m not saying anything new here) don’t look for startling insight from me on this) the work of improving writing is a process that is multi-faceted and intricate. It takes time. It takes focus and wandering/Wonder and Rigor. It takes patience. And while these are all things we can ask of our students, what’s more important is that we, the teachers, must own and offer the same.

And while it is the most precious of the commodities listed above, nothing is more important to writers than time. Sure, I think kids should be writing things every day in every classroom. But the kind of Writerly use of time I’m talking about is more than that. I’m talking about time spent writing even when one doesn’t know what to write about–writing to think.

Peter Elbow

For me, the greatest exercise in writing to think that I’ve ever encountered is Freewriting. Popularized (though not “invented”) by Peter Elbow in the 1970s and a technique my 11th grade English teacher taught us in 1984, I have never looked away from freewriting. Elbow’s insistence on writing simply to see what we are thinking, to get all the junk out of the way, to reveal the good pieces of thought, and work with them until we refine, shape, and better understand what we mean is just good cognitive practice. It’s a type of beneficial rumination…something that helps us develop a “Writerly way of being.”

This “Writerly way of being” is a term I’ve turned to for the past 6 years. I’m borrowing the sentiment of it from the work of the British design researcher Nigel Cross. Cross wrote widely and passionately about the need for the English schooling system to develop classes in design. His book, “Designerly Ways of Knowing” is one aspect of that work. That we can think/know in designerly ways indicates something of the very nature of human beings. We are designers by birth. We seek to act with intention to solve problems in our everyday lives, for ourselves and others.

The use of the adverb, “designerly,” then, indicates something about the mode of knowing. And it was abundantly clear to me that what had driven me to read about design in the first place–the similarity of its iterative nature and processes to the writing process itself–was a clear indication that if I could develop “Designerly Ways of Knowing” I could certainly help my students develop “Writerly ways of being.” And the first step in that is to write, a lot.

And there are other steps. I’ll direct you to others who have written and researched far more than I have on this: Donald Graves, Peter Elbow, Lucy Calkins, Ralph Fletcher, and poets like Yusef Komunyakaa, Mark Doty, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Walt Whiman and others. They’ve lived full lives engaged in developing writerly minded beings–their own as well as those they teach. And all of them recognize either directly or indirectly the necessity of unencumbered, unplanned time as invaluable to the writer’s being.

And this is not a capitalist interpretation of time. We are not concerned with the passage of time and the counting of coins gained or lost. Instead, we, as teachers, must be concerned with a different kind of capital, a soulful, courageous capital…a capital of beauty, if such can even enter into our accounting of how time passes and is experienced in our classrooms. The Poets are instructive here… In her widely anthologized poem, “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver “accounts” for this use of idling in this way:

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed,

And one could not speak of idling and the necessity for “deep time” without speaking of America’s greatest “Loafer,” Walt Whitman who “leaned and loafed” at his ease, “observing a spear of summer grass.” Who admitted quite publicly how much he loved to loaf and watch, how he “enjoy[ed] so much seeing the busy world move by him,” and exhibiting itself for his amusement, while he takes it easy and just looks on and observes.

If being writerly means loafing, observing, and bathing in deep time, but our most rigorous classes and most of our college preparatory classes demand soulless, technically correct writing because…? Because we think this is what colleges are looking for? Well, surely we note the conflict here.

The other day I was working with a student on his drafts of short essays for the common app. Both essays were on interesting topics: Astronomy, Drumming. Both were clear and correct. And both failed in achieving their promise. At first I struggled with expressing my disconnect. And then it struck me: Both pieces were technically correct. The problem was, both pieces were technically correct. We’d taught this student, and he’d learned very well how to achieve the lie of objectivity, but he struggled with the truth of subjectivity, the very heart of moving, powerful writing.

So how, in a curriculum packed with “stuff” (for that’s what most of it is), how do we find the “deep time” to allow students to loaf, observe, and fall down on their knees in the grass? Given our current predicament–The COVID-19 pandemic–I’d say we need to look at what we’ve been doing and consider seriously a deep revision of what we have in our overpacked, ridiculous curriculum maps. One popular article that would help towards this end plays off a pop-culture sensation and asks us to, “Marie Kondo the Curriculum.

But let’s say we don’t have that autonomy. We’re too far in already to back out. (I’d argue that’s never the case, but I do recognize the safety one seeks in padded, blanketed curricula.). What can we do then?

Well, one of the best ways I know of to have writers pause and observe them there, to try on the mind of the writer, is a specialized form of freewriting called “Process Writing.” I first encountered process writing in one of my countless trips to Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking. (Their professional development in the field of writing is unparalleled.)

In Process Writing, which is also the title of a brilliant chapter by Prof. Alfie Guy in the Institute’s book, Writing Based Teaching: Essential Practices and Enduring Questions, students produce drafts for revision and publication, but never without first writing about their process. That is, each draft is accompanied by a “cover letter…that describes where the text feels solid and where they would like more help.” A solid assignment for a first Process Write might address thes three questions:

–What were you trying to accomplish in this essay?
–Where did you have success and where did you run into trouble?
–What would you do next if you were to work more on this piece?

The perspective flip here is startling to many students. They’ve never written in this way before. Never done more than turn in the results, the products of their process. Rarely, if at all, have any of them thought about how they wrote and why writing about their writing might be something valuable.

Since I have used process writing, the level and depth of my student’s growth as writers is palpable. It pervades the entire community of the classroom. When we think as writers and about ourselves as writers, when we adopt “Writerly Ways of Being,” we shift from passengers in a body asked to labor with words to authors of our own stories, owners of opinions and thoughts with value far beyond a grade.

And that, is a fine way to be.