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.

Touching the Sturgeon

(The following essay, a meditation on why I believe we/I read, was first published by the Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard College in the 2011 issue of their annual publication, Writing from the Inside Out.)

Last night I traveled.  Buoyed on the words of author Susan Rogers as she read from a recent essay, I swam from the hardwood paneled room with its ornate plaster ceiling on the campus of Bard College to the vast, watery plane of the Hudson River sliding past the college barely half a mile away.  In an instant, I was floating beside Susan as she paddled south on the wide, rain-swollen river heading towards a New York Department of Environmental Conservation boat that had clearly caught something large. One of the men on board acknowledged her presence as she glided up to the boat, and floating to the back, she could see that what they had was a 6-foot Atlantic sturgeon hauled up from the river’s depths that they were tagging for study.  

In itself, a scene like this is, perhaps, memorable.  Most people will never be that close to an Atlantic sturgeon.  However, Susan’s description of the fish made it unforgettable:  “It is a dinosaur fish–it hasn’t changed in over 62 million years.”   She continued, describing its blue-black belly, its flat gaping mouth for filtering “dynamic mud”, how when touched or struck gently on its body its solidity, like a piece of wood, surprised her.  There on the river beside her, I saw this animal, belly up, mouth agape, all out of sorts. I know now, too, of it’s prized caviar, of the fishermen with names like stories who used to pull them out of the Hudson and sell them as “Albany Beef.”

But I learned something else that night, something beyond the fish, beyond myself.

Susan’s language, the rhythm of the sentences, the placement of this recollection immediately after she described the death of her mother, the way she reached out to touch the fish, gently, with a curiosity and compassion…all this made me realize why we read.

 

In his work I and Thou, Martin Buber presents his relational philosophy of dialogue.  At its heart are two distinct modes of engaging with the world. The first, the I – it mode, is mere experience of an object of observation or utility (the “it”) by a subject (the “I”). This mode is clinical and scientific, detached and observant–think of a virologist watching a petri dish. But in the second, the I-you mode, both objects enter into a transformative relationship.  The “I” engages the “you” as an entirety, the universe in and of itself.  Jane Goddall’s game-changing relationships/studies with chimps are a good example.  Buber classifies such a relationship through three elements, the third of which is the fact that “this one person [the I], without forfeiting anything of the felt reality of his activity, at the same time lives through the common event from the standpoint of the other” (Buber, Education, p.96 f., in Friedman). Buber calls this engagement an “encounter” and grants that such encounters can happen between the I and any object, person … fish.

 

This sturgeon, this ancient, alien fish hauled up through the spell of language, all glassy-eyed, mouth gulping air. . . it was real to me.  Its solid, scaled, bony body, its position of helplessness… I was there, on that river, touching that sturgeon. But the room was not gone, my classmates seated around me remained, Susan’s voice was clear.  I existed in two places at once.

What should I say? That I felt compassion for this fish?  That I sensed its fear? That though a silent and strange species, I felt a connection?  None of this gets to the totality I felt, to the way my mind reached out and the world rushed in, numinous, swirling around me as the Hudson swirled around this fish.

Why do we read?  Because the ability of stories to transport the reader compels us.  Because the incantatory power of language sings us out of our slumbers and into the circle.  And perhaps, as for me, reading stories and encountering characters makes us better people, and holds a religious power over us.  Maybe it is all these things at once. I read because an ancient fish connects me to the world. I read because authors preach a universal gospel in a church that requires no faith but what I have in mankind.

(This piece began as an essay for Indu Chugani’s Inquiry into Essay workshop in July of 2010 at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking.  That week we read essays by Junot Diaz, Malcolm Gladwell, and a piece by Nam Le–All of which dealt with identity and how we perceive our selves.  At midweek, Indu gave us a prompt to create a “mini-essay” that focused on a dialogue between the texts.  I floundered through four hours of joyless writing that evening, pleased only, really, with the fact that I’d felt transported by a reading that evening by Susan Rogers.  The next day following the advice of two of my peer-revision classmates, I jettisoned a full third of the paper (the section that was most like an “academic essay”) and instead focused on the experience of hearing Susan Rogers read.  Their advice, as well as the advice of the editors of Bard’s “Writing from the Inside Out” periodical, where this piece was published, has helped me to let this piece be what it wants to be.  And while it fails to address the original prompt Indu gave us, it succeeds in giving voice to something I’ve felt for a long time.

It wasn’t easy.  I struggled with the third paragraph, trying to revise it, cajole it into getting it to do what I wanted, which was, essentially, to give the piece a semblance of “the essay,” as I had always known it…to meet the focus of the course as I saw it.  I know that writing has a mind of its own, that it is often best to let the piece be what it wants to be.  Truth be told, this piece always wanted to be about that night as simply one instance of many where I’ve felt the dark lenses drop away from my eyes and the world reveals itself.  My demand that the piece stand up to some external standard made revision far more about me than about this piece, and thus I’ve learned something important.  Of course, it also doesn’t seem much like the traditional essay I thought I’d write, and in that, I’m also surprised.  It’s as though I went out fishing for trout at a river I’ve known all my life and instead hauled in a sturgeon.  )

Ambition, Discovery: Writing, and Teaching, and Learning

gustaveflaubert1

I’ve recently read more than my share of blog posts and articles on “Writing as Discovery.”  The sense is not new, of course, but the renewed (if that’s what it is) interest in writing towards these ends is refreshing.

As a teacher for almost 25 years, and an attendant at numerous conferences or workshops at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking, my pedagogical quiver contains scores of methods for engaging students in writing to learn or writing as discovery.  This is informal writing, and primary among the methods I use is freewriting as a means for writing to think, and writing to learn.  It’s all about writing as discovery and the methods all rely on a mindset of “just getting it down.”

I’ve read Paul Thomas’s post about the dangers of “writing recipes,” and I appreciate the description of his process.  I suppose one thing to admit if we’re going to dive into writing and discovery with our students is that we as teachers must also be writers and see ourselves in that light. Further, we need to immerse ourselves in the scholarship surrounding creativity and creative production.  Doing so will give us a familiarity with the creative act (and writing of all types is, certainly, creative) and, more important, the vocabulary with which to discuss the act.

My goal as a teacher is not to create writers.  By the time students get to me they have enough facility with language for me to call them writers (ie., people capable of writing).  But if I’m going to get them to see themselves as more than writers in a utilitarian sense, if I want them to believe they can use writing to affect deep thought and emotion in their audience, then I have to teach them how to think in “writerly ways.” (With this term I’m riffing off of Nigel Cross’s work in the UK and his promotion of Design as a discipline for study and the creation of “designerly minded” learners.)   That is, I have to help them develop the mindset and questioning techniques of writers.  Any teacher who seeks to accomplish such must see herself as a writer in that sense as well.  In that, she must be one of the “teachers of ambition” who not only “teach English” but who live the lives of writers:  watching, observing, and questioning the world in intensely curious ways…in  manners similar to scientists, but who report on their findings in ways utterly different than scientists.  (Though seriously, it’s freakishly frightening that our theories of the end of the universe are that it will expand into a cold, whimpering “emptiness” and T.S. Eliot writes more or less the same (“This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper”).

So if it’s teaching writing as discovery, then I’m making sure I’m constantly doing PD (BARD!!!!!) in writing pedagogy. I’m reading books like Writing Down the Bones, Bird by Bird, Zen in the Art of Writing (a personal favorite by Ray Bradbury); any books on writing Pedagogy like Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power, Writing without Teachers, A Community of Writers; books on the creative process like A Whack on the Side of the Head, A Kick in the Seat of the Pants (both by Roger von Oech), Thinkertoys, Five Star Mind, A Whole New Mind, and countless others.  And, of course, countless articles, etc.

To my teacher friends, perhaps it isn’t all that helpful, to say, go read all these things, go shift your weltanschauung.  But seriously, regardless of what you teach, if you’re not intensely curious about it, then you ought not teach it.  And students know this.  They know that the best teachers of a subject, the ones who go beyond the content and who craft a compelling story about why living a life that reads and writes the world through a mindset of science, math, words, etc…those are the teachers who transfer the sparks of passion, who offer learning as a gift and not a mere duty.  And that gift grows in the student, for they begin to discover their world expanding through mathematical patterns, scientific processes, musical harmonies, or words…”mere words.”

But maybe the best way to teach writing as discovery is to just share our own writing with students, to show them where we discovered things and how that happened.  To turn the classroom into a congregation worshiping at the miracle of creation, whatever form that creation may take.  For me, it is words, and not merely their consumption through reading books.  My classroom is a place to marvel at the utterly unique pairings, juxtapositions, and random wonders of words in all the varied forms and structures we have created.  It is a place to linger over those forms and structures, and to revel in the joy of new forms of expression we discover along the way towards a better understanding of who we are as human beings.