Faith & Truth / On Reading / On Writing / The English Teacher / The Social Network

Mental Institution

I think I might need one.

When I got serious about being an effective writing teacher, I read Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott, Natalie Goldberg, Donald Graves, Nancie Atwell, Kelly Gallagher, and well, it was a heady, fruitful time. I read rather widely and beyond those whose names I’ve listed here; presently, those names come to a mind in possible need of mental restoration, so I’ll spare you further name dropping. I discovered much on my journey to becoming a better (not yet good) writing teacher. Some insights I had known for a long time. Other bits left me feeling like I’d discovered a goldmine.

My experiences reminded me that too often students don’t want to write; they don’t know what to write, and worse, they know that they must. For a grade What a dreadful combination. Therefore, they end up producing safe but dull writing that for the most part, please God, obeys the rules of usage and grammar drilled in during their early years. Writing teachers need to build a bridge between safe and dull to the land of possibility and imagination, where vibrant, expressive thought burbles forth onto a page, and writers (even the youngest of them) feel free and inspired to explore the powerful world of words and ideas. We write about life. It’s what we know. It’s what happens to us. It’s what hurts us. It’s what brings us joy. It’s what matters. That’s risky. But good writing has a chance to show its face in those moments of risk.

What I hadn’t considered would fill books. Well, yes. That’s what I was reading. DUH.

I knew, in some vague way, that simply being an ‘English’ teacher in no way qualified me to teach writing. People assumed it did. I (and any other ‘English’ teacher worth her salt) knew better. Writers — you know, people who regularly put words on paper that are intended for readers to consider — might be better candidates for TEACHING WRITING. (Oops. So sorry. I started to yell there for a moment.) So, with trepidation, I deliberately started putting words on paper. Sharing the words and sacrificing my ego on feedback’s altar. Revising. Clarifying. Trying again. Discovering anew the hard work of writing. In the mix, a good bit of head banging, which, now I think of it, could explain the mental institution thing-y…

Anne Lamott, in her engaging way (with a chapter entitled “Shitty First Drafts”), suggests that getting the first draft down will be messy, imperfect; and, ta-da! that fact just doesn’t matter too much. The drafting process rarely produces ‘once and done’ writing worth others’ reading time. This nugget of writing wisdom gave me permission and freedom to give my students permission and freedom to write more widely and without fear of condemnation, correction, or anything else that shuts down the process. Imagine then, my discovery of some rather vehement opposition to such writing wisdom recently: The T-Shirt Rules of Writing lays waste to the notion of a first draft written merely to ‘get the thing down.’ Hyphenman contends,”yes, you will have unleashed your imagination and committed your story to paper. But if you’ve written it in a free-flowing, acid-trip, stream-of-consciousness, helter-skelter fashion, you will have produced unadulterated and unusable crap.”

Well. Crap. So those writer’s notebooks filled with my students’ heltered and skeltered first drafts now weigh heavily on my teacher’s conscience.

But at least I reminded them continually that they write for readers. That writing is to be read. Writers have the autonomy to write what they desire, in the manner they see fitting and proper to the subject matter at hand. But readers have the last word. It’s a great idea for writer’s to keep that in mind. (Every once in awhile I did manage a great teaching moment.) A friend of mine contends, though, that writers write for themselves. Anyone who might happen to connect with it is rather incidental. Icing on the cake of the writing life. I don’t know about that. Neither, does this guy. Everyone has an opinion, of course. I don’t agree with my friend on this point. I rest easy having told my students that writing for self, though worthwhile, is not the ultimate end-goal.

Today, we have endless access to what passes for news, for opinions on everything under the sun (which, we might do well to remember is rather meaningless, if Solomon can be trusted), and the occasional great sentence or two thanks to the webbernets. In plenteous supply we find writers’ thoughts and how-tos on writing. Even on process, writers don’t agree. Wordsmiths are writing. Wanna-be-writers are writing. Some, who might do well to find another outlet, are writing. Hacks are writing. Of the voluminous lot, some, including even this, will be read.  SO WHAT!?!?

Intellectual stimulation, emotional stirring, the ring of freedom, and the possibility of revolution. That’s what.

Writing. The work of the mind.

It’s an institution, really.


2 thoughts on “Mental Institution

  1. Speaking as a writer who also has spent some time (more than I care to admit) in a mental institution, I would say your rants here are thoroughly sane. If you were looking for a sabbatical at a local psych unit, I’m afraid you wouldn’t likely gain admission.

    Keep trying, though. Hope springs eternal.

    • Good gracious — How did I not see your witty, wonderful comment until just this moment? I don’t even know… thanks for writing it, though. ‘better late then never’ and other platitudinous acknowledgements to you 😉

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