Writing is hard.
It is beautiful and liberating at times, yet self-destructive at others. It pulls at us from the inside in an often horrific, yet pleasantly cathartic, way. For writers who are also teachers, they must convey so much more than grammar, narrative arcs, ethos, pathos, and parallelism. They become almost akin to elders or Jedi, passing along wisdom, rather than the minutiae of form, and in doing so they often sacrifice their own writing, work-life balance, and sometimes their sanity, all in an effort to be a better educator, to cultivate creativity and self-expression. There exists a mesmerizing dynamic between writing, teaching, and psychology (I used to be a therapist). Each point of the triangle exerting and receiving influence, a theatrical balancing act, and it is hard not to sound like a hypocrite in the front of the classroom, when all this truth hangs in the back of your skull.
For all of us, everyone, not just writers, we are all judged by the way we communicate complicated and abstract ideas through symbols digitally etched into negative space. It’s that simple and it’s that horrifying. Largely this is on what my first-year English composition course focuses.
I hope that with a forced return to basics, we hook our students, and ourselves.
On the first day of class, I break my students into groups based on their major, and I then have them brainstorm the different forms and media of writing they will complete in their college career, and then their career beyond. Most times we run out of space on the board – everything from emails to professors, to business plans, to resumes and cover letters, to graduate school theses to memos and thank-you cards, and we are never judged more harshly than through our written communication. I believe in this so much I tell my students I will not respond to emails that are not grammatically correct. This may sound ridiculous or harsh but for years now I receive multiple drafts of emails. My stimulus resonates with my students. They want answers, but they know they won’t receive reinforcement if they don’t write well.
While these are just two ways to break through the student reluctance on the first day to hook them, there are a few others.
When you introduce yourself, share the truth, even if it is dark. One semester when I was going through the end of a nine-year partnership – it was very much like a divorce, I told my students. Read them something you have written. Make yourself a person in their eyes, not a robot offering grades. Share your own struggles with writing, your own process, what works for you and what doesn’t. Make your class (yourself included) write a poem on the first day of class that something how included the following: hometown, major, favorite book, favorite movie, favorite show, favorite band, favorite sport, and one hobby.
With any of these, your student will see you are a human, you know your shit, you care, and that you are not just a robot offering grades.
The ways you can hook your student’s are infinite, but these methods are only successful if you make yourself vulnerable, make them feel comfortable, and yet make them terrified of the importance of written communication.
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Because writing is so personal and difficult we often procrastinate (like students). We distract ourselves with walking the dogs, dusting the shelves, re-organizing the bookshelves, vacuuming. It’s not easy, but the ultimate paradox of our lives is that for many of us we know how to inspire students but not ourselves. We have precise steps for lighting that fire under their asses, but we struggle so much ourselves. All that inspiration we give them, we should also give to ourselves.
So, on that first day of class, we also discuss the importance of writing, how high school English probably did not adequately prepare them, Aristotle and contemporary rhetoric, and I repeat the words: author, audience, and purpose, until my throat hurts.
Their purpose for writing cannot be because I am making them – they have to strive for something larger, I say. We talk about their audience and how that can change and the influence of their personal experiences on them as an author.
I always tell them they can’t become a worse writer, only better. It’s not possible.
If there is a thesis to that first day it’s they have to write well because they just have to. Their professors, internship supervisors, and prospective employers will all judge them by their command of language. To drive home this point I tell the story of that trucking company in Maine that had to pay out millions, a year or two ago, over a missing Oxford comma.
“How many of you want to get a job? Go to grad school?” I ask. “Do you want to embarrass yourselves in front of your peers, professors, or prospective employers?”
Yet, why don’t we do this for ourselves? Is it ego? Are we too busy? Maybe it’s because the balance is impossible to maintain. We are passionate about our students, we’re hard on them, and we push them. We need to do the same to ourselves.
Every time you sit in front of the computer, whisper, “author, audience, purpose.”
Learning how to write well and how to write effectively is a process. I push my students to reflect on what works for them and what doesn’t, to experiment with where they write, when they write, if they listen to music or not, to inspire themselves however they need to. That’s exactly what we need to do as writers, and we need to do it constantly. For me, I always write in my home office, listening to music. On the wall next to my desk hang shelves, holding photographs, prints, strange objects, notes and files on current projects, presents from former students, some Lego figurines, a Ouija board.
Life sometimes forces us to write whenever and wherever we can, but that doesn’t work.
You need to find your place and your process.
While I never necessarily have problems with generating ideas, the issue is when they come to me – always when I’m driving or when I’m in the shower. Neither are convenient, but I have adapted. I use the voice recorder in my car and have a journal in the bathroom.
Possibly the most difficult to overcome is being blocked or stuck. I have tried everything – beer, other creative lubricants, pacing, talking to myself, going for drives, exercise, medication and yoga, and countless others. What works best for me though is to relax and clear my mind – that sounds simple, but it’s not. You must find where you are truly calm and peaceful. Personally, I need to be near water and the woods. There are several hiking trails near my house, but when I am stuck with a piece, I walk one particular trail, listening to the babbling creek and the birds, and then I come to a large rock.
I won’t tell you about that rock, because it’s mine, and that is my secret place. When I am there though, everything seems clearer, all the white nose filtered out.
Find your creek or trail; find your rock.
Writing is an act of self-therapy, self-exorcism even. Just like in the dark ages, it takes experimentation, and fear, and monsters. It’s a personal journey. We encourage our students to do the best they can and to write like their lives depend on it. We must also do the same. Tell yourself your life depends on it.
Author, audience, purpose.