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Teaching Writing from the Inside Out

Artwork by Lisa Congdon.  Artwork by Lisa Congdon.

It took me a long time before I could say, “I am a writer.” I now proudly claim that Writer mantle because I spend a fair amount of time stringing together words, trying to say something worthwhile as engagingly as possible, and then sharing it with others.

I was thinking about this today and wondering how I learned to be a writer. Unfortunately, I can’t say my high school years had very much to do with it. I don’t remember writing anything for a high school class. That doesn’t mean writing wasn’t assigned or taught. It just means I don’t remember it, probably because I didn’t do it. I didn’t do most things assigned in high school. (Yes, I was a true joy to my teachers.)

I remember writing an explication of Don McLean’s “American Pie” and an editorial or two for the school paper. One of those editorials was a truly awful satire entitled “The Bells, Bells, Bells …” which ended like this: “If we continue to allow bells to run our education, surely, surely they will run our entire lives.” Yikes! This is fresh on my mind because my masterpiece recently ended up on Facebook, posted by my classmate Denise, the artist assigned the unenviable task of illustrating it many years ago.

From Boone High School newspaper, circa 1976.  Artwork by Denise Chelmsford.From Boone High School newspaper, circa 1976. Artwork by Denise Chelmsford.

Writing is still hard work, and I struggle with it. I struggle with beginnings, middles, and endings. I use too many unnecessary modifiers. My tone frequently varies from what I hear in my head to how it appears on the page. I use anecdotes that distract from my main point, and once in a while I use the wrong your.

Over time I have learned strategies for spotting and revising those weaknesses. I can cut distracting words, sentences, and paragraphs. I look for ways to add or subtract material to enhance the attitude and ideas I want to convey. I read my work out loud before submitting or posting. Still, I’m rarely satisfied with the result. This Paul Valery quote comes to mind: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

I’m a better writer because some people have helped me along the way, no doubt about it. In college my saintly mentor Marion Gremmels helped me grow by leading me to reflect on my writing process. The writing group I met with at the Barrington library for several years motivated me to be a more productive writer. I’ve worked with colleagues who give excellent feedback and encourage me to pursue ideas and projects. My wife is my best editor and b.s. detector. I also try new ideas gained from reading a lot about writing and listening to really smart writing experts.

My point is that I learned to write on my own for the most part, and I’m glad. The lessons I’ve learned about writing come from my own writing experiences. I learned to write by writing. I learned to generate ideas by generating ideas, and I learned to revise by revising. I figured out things about writing, and the lessons are deeply internalized.

I didn’t learn to write because someone told me how to do it. I didn’t learn to write because I completed assignments made by somebody else. I didn’t learn to write by following rules I didn’t understand.

I learned to write from the inside out.

So what does this mean for the way I teach writing? Is teaching an inherently outside-in kind of thing? I don’t think so.

Telling about my own writing is part of how I bring my internal processes to the surface with the hope I am providing a useful model to help students discover their own processes. I share what I’m working on and ask for their advice, which is almost always solid.

What else? Well, my students will tell you I’m not very big on directions. When it comes to writing, I rarely tell students what to do or how to do it. This drives them a little crazy at first, but I strongly believe that if they are to grow as writers, they need to figure out how to make writing decisions. They need to feel what it’s like to grope for an idea and experience the trial-and-error process of shaping it into something satisfying to both writer and reader.

When students ask questions about rules, I try to respond with answers that will shape them as writers rather than shaping a specific piece of writing.

Question: Is it OK to use I? Answer: There are no forbidden words. Think about what you’re trying to accomplish and use the words that get you there.
Question: Is there a rubric for this? Answer: The rubric is based on the size of my goose bumps when I read it.
Question: How long does this need to be? Answer: You’ll know when it’s done.

When students ask questions about writing processes and individual writing dilemmas, I take those very seriously and thoroughly walk through options and problem-solving scenarios.

After students submit writing, we reflect on what worked well and what didn’t work so well in their individual experiences.

Our school also promotes the development of inside-out writers in a couple of other ways. I’m not the only writer on our faculty. We have many teachers in many departments who write and share their work. Through our Writers Week program we bring in a dozen or so professional writers each year who talk about their writing. Along with those professional writers, our faculty writers and student writers also share their writing lives during Writers Week. Thankfully, our students are frequently exposed to writers who articulate how authentic writing works and what it’s like to be a writer.

What does it mean then to teach writing from the inside out?

Maybe the best I can do for young writers is provide opportunities to practice many different kinds of writing, help them think through the obstacles that arise and reflect on what worked well in the writing process, and encourage risk-taking.

Practice. Reflect. Risk. Isn’t that what writers really do, from the inside out?

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