Saturday, March 14, 2015

14: Learning how to write...

My brother is a baseball coach who has decided that this year, my hometown's annual summer festival deserves an update --- an outdoor market for vendors who sell antiques and collectibles, as well as homemade arts and crafts.  He would like this to become an annual fundraising event for his team, which is timely because they are in the process of a massive capital campaign to improve the local baseball facility.  And he would like for vendors who are the best of the best to rent space for the one-day event in July.

So he must invite them.  By mail.  Soon.  With a flier.  And legal information.  And details that entice.

Which is where I come into this slice.

I've spent the bulk of my writing time today working for my brother...on this very letter, employing what I know about argument and persuasion.  About how words work together to paint a picture bigger than the sum of their parts.  About presentation and adding text features.  About negative space and its role in this type of publication.  About which details are most important to this specific audience. An audience of which I have never been a part.

Which makes me pause and return to this question -- the one that has haunted me since starting on my writing workshop journey six years ago -- How did I learn how to write?

Honestly, I'm not sure I ever did.  At least not like students who are lucky enough to be in writing workshops now do.

When I think of writing, I don't think of elementary school, save penmanship and the all-important cursive lessons of second-grade.

When I think of writing, I don't of Mrs. Cook and the Advanced Composition course I took for two semesters during high school.  I remember the course workbooks, pluperfect subjective, sentence diagramming, and the weekly vocabulary quiz, albeit I don't remember any actual composition.

I don't think of Mrs. Minch, either, and the (what I thought was gigantic and arduous) term paper I had to successfully construct before heading off to college. The research -- microfiche, Encyclopedias, and books (real, physical books I checked out at my alma mater) -- that fed the neat, little stack of index cards I used to organize my paper (before my accounting teacher's daughter-in-law typed it) seemed archaic.  And unsustainable.  I wondered, Is this what real writing is?  How many pages did you say it has to be...ten?

I don't think of the responses written for lower-level literature classes, and how when I took risks, my teacher asked me to revisit standard text conventions, even when I had top-drawer reasons in support of these decisions.  (Close reading wasn't en vogue back then...)

I do think, though, of Heather my English Composition 111 instructor at Miami University my freshman year.  I knew I didn't know 'how' to write.  First semester, my best strategy was fake it until I make it and this 'faking' included the use of a thesaurus.  Multiple times.  Multiple papers.  On one graded piece, she circled paradigm and wrote in the margin, "Do you know what this means?  It doesn't really fit here..."  The thing is, I didn't know.  It was the fanciest synonym listed.  And sometimes when you're faking it to make it, you resort to drastic measures.  My deficits were so transparent; my voice so absent.  She was so learned; I knew this about her.  I wrote to her, or at least I attempted to.  But when you use a word like paradigm and when you're typing it in you say, para-DIG-m, you have no business including it in your paper.  By the end of semester one, I knew this too, and I was ready for a new strategy: write real.

I do think, then, of Judith my English Composition 112 instructor.  We studied authors like Toni Morrison and Sylvia Plathe, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou.  We analyzed their craft moves and then tried them out in our own work.  She encouraged us, as authors, to find our voice.  To say what matters.  And so I wrote...about my almost-eating disorder in high school and how I ended up the smallest version of myself in so many ways.  I took risks in transparency and the pieces I birthed that semester were of my life in my words in my choice format.  I remember getting one paper back with her comments at the top --- "You should submit this to our campus paper.  Will you consider sharing?"  My heart swelled; I was flattered.  But I didn't do it.  I didn't think I could.  That's a lot of people; a lot of truth.  And what if they turn down my submission?

When I think about learning how to write, I think about I've always been naturally drawn to "the swirl and swing of words," as James Michener so eloquently describes.  And, I think about listening to people talk...about what words are said, and the ones that lie beneath, unsaid but felt.  I think about reading "The Art of Teaching Writing" by Lucy Calkins at the advice of my new principal six years ago, and how the type of writing instruction she described seemed so real, so Judith from Comp 112, that I could actually pour out what I could do...but couldn't name...into an instructional experience that would've so satisfied my younger self...

And ever since, it hasn't been enough to know, in theory, how to write or even how to teach writing. Learning about writing has become my life's work, and I'm the luckiest girl for it.

But, honestly, it is a messy project...and is rarely cinched with tight and perfect stitches.

What I've learned about writing is what follows: it requires voice and is best when it's true; it requires community that's the sort to encourage and extend; it requires grace for our own work and that of others; it is worth teaching and worth knowing, inside and out.

Because real-life would say that someday there will be a flier you just have to compose, but the truth is that by now, I know otherwise --- there is real-life to document.  To declare significant.

Writing is its own playground.

It doesn't matter how you get there.

Write on,


  1. Oh, the years of penmanship and cursive...I remember a third grade teacher whose writing advice I still remember (but not her name. Paragraphs. I grew up in a family of inveterate letter writers. That was a big help with voice and sense of audience. Still messy though.

    Learning other languages and writing in them helped teaching too, especially basic writing and for GED. I remembered the struggle and what it felt like

  2. What a journey of the written word you have documented! Finally you were able to develop your own unique voice and style. It is with anticipation each day I read your work, enjoying every syllable you use.


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