Writing as Exploration and Discovery

Vincent Walsh

I usually tell my beginning writing students that the hardest part about composing an essay is coming up with the opening line; what I don’t say is that the hardest part is actually coming up with a topic to write about, and doing all the necessary brainstorming and possible background reading necessary as preparation before sitting down to begin work. I don’t explain my thoughts on this because I am about to tell them that all their essays will be on topics of their own choosing. I guess I don’t want to discourage them at the very outset by making them feel that the task will be too daunting.

A great deal of research and publication has been focused on the problem of ascertaining the most effective approaches to teaching writing, or “composition and rhetoric,” as it is referred to in more formal circles. A major academic industry has emerged since World War II devoted to the subject, and countless books and articles continue to pour forth, with endless arguments and counter arguments, laundry lists of teaching strategies, and various and sundry speculations and theories. In a sense, all of this can be quite helpful, for writing hasn’t really been formally studied prior to the last sixty years or so, even though the Greeks recognized rhetoric as the most fundamental and important of all intellectual and academic skills. But as a teacher of writing perusing the vast array of printed materials devoted to the topic, I often feel overwhelmed and discouraged; it seems ironic that one could begin to feel lost in a labyrinth of words focused on how to use words effectively and meaningfully. One begins to fear that we are all just bricklayers working on the Tower of Babel.

As with other complex and crucial subjects, my own sense is that it is imperative to break the issue down into a few fundamental notions, and simply begin from there. This is how I have approach the task: I assume that the best way to learn how to write well is to do a lot of it, and to get some expert guidance along the way. I also assume that students are going to feel more enthusiastic about writing when they are choosing what they want to write about, instead of just responding to topics (or “prompts,” as they are commonly called) provided or assigned by me. I believe this to be true even if it requires more thought and effort on their part, more independent work, to come up with their own subjects for essays; I think young people welcome this challenge; they do not automatically follow the line of least resistance, nor always seek the easiest way to accomplish a task. I believe we are all innately curious about the world, that we possess bodies and minds and spirits that have a built-in need to grow. The problem comes when we are frustrated in that desire because someone else is standing over us with a whip telling us how we must grow, and in what direction.

Of course, I’m not inferring that writing prompts are whips, or that students don’t require some guidance and direction in their writing process. Assigned topics are helpful, appropriate, and even necessary in some cases; a specified topic can help elicit a student’s best effort, and the most satisfying result, for student and teacher alike. But I think it is just as true to say that the best way to get students interested in writing is to allow them to write for themselves, that is, to choose subjects that they have a personal investment in, that they can write about with feeling, conviction, and perhaps even passion. This is especially true, I suspect, for beginning writing courses, ones designed as a general introduction to the subject in freshman year in college, for example. We cannot assume that all freshman students are really interested in writing, any more than we can that they are all already accomplished writers. And we cannot assume that they will all learn how to write effectively under our direction simply because we tell them what good writing is and how to do it.

So my approach is to allow students to identify their own interests, and to explore the inner workings of their own hearts and minds; I want them to feel that writing is something that concerns them personally on the deepest levels, that it is not just a task they have to perform to meet the demands of an instructor in order to obtain a satisfactory grade. I want them to understand that there are many different types of writing, each suited for the particular task or requirement at hand, and that formal academic writing is only one kind of writing, one dimension of a vast and varied field. I want them to know that writing is just another means of communication, like talking or shouting or singing, and that it has unique possibilities as such, for it involves a kind of premeditation, and provides the possibility of revision and refinement, something that can never happen in the domain of ordinary spoken language. Spoken words disappear as soon as their sound dies out, and linger only in memory that clouds and fades with each passing second. Written words remain, visible on the open page, and can be re-read and pondered — savored like fine wine. Hearing a song once in a concert is never quite as satisfying as being able to play the CD over and over again to allow it to absorb slowly into one’s mind and soul.

Students understand that they are going to be required to write papers for academic subjects, but I want them to realize also that the kind of writing they do in composing a letter or email to a family member or friend is just as important. I want them to know that there is a kind of writing called the personal essay that is informal and open-ended, that it allows for the expression of one’s own perceptions and thoughts and feelings about the world, independent of what a teacher might think or expect, and that it allows for a kind of communication that is creative and free, like the sounds of words they hear ringing through their favorite rock’n’roll or rap song on the radio. I want them to know that writing is a form of learning, and that we often don’t really know what we think or how we feel about a given subject until we sit down and try to put it into words. I want them to experience for themselves how sharing their essays and poems and letters with others is one of the best ways of learning about themselves and about the people around them, one of the surest ways of creating a sense of community among those with whom one works and lives. I want them to find out that sitting down to write can be one of the best methods of dealing with painful experiences and feelings, that it is possible to find a kind of release, what Aristotle called “catharsis,” through the process of transcribing one’s inner pain onto the written page.

So far, in the past four years, among the more than 250 students who have taken my writing course at Lehigh, I’ve received essays on a wide variety of topics, from how unsuspected anemia almost destroyed a promising high school track career, to a critical evaluation of Ebonics, the debate about Affirmative Action, the misuse of religious dogma as a justification for war, personal memoirs related to the tragic events of 9/11, narratives about growing up in the inner city, the tribulations of athletic boot camps in the midst of sweltering heat in late August, family tragedies, the drinking age for teenagers, the blurring of lines between church and state, car breakdowns in the mountains, identity crises over being caught between races, and the painful transition from home to college, with its attendant separation from family and lifelong friends. In a few cases, students have requested help in coming up with topics for their next essay, but they usually were asking for guidance in choosing among subjects they were already considering; even when a student seemed clearly at a loss, I always took care to provide several alternatives, so that personal preference was still involved. No student has felt compelled to write strictly according to requirements stipulated by me.

I know that responding to specified prompts is a skill my students are going to need to develop, but my focus for now is to encourage them to become involved in the process of writing for its own sake, and help them realize that writing is first and foremost a matter of personal expression, not just an activity one engages in to satisfy teachers and pass classes in school. I run my classes as a workshop; we sit in a circle while students read their work aloud, and we discuss issues that emerge in seminar style. I never ask students to write during class, and I never break them into small groups. We all work together as a unit, emphasizing the need for collective awareness, for building relationships among members of our group, for supporting and encouraging each other, for providing constructive criticism and feedback in response to each other’s efforts. Generally, most of each class is taken up with students reading their essays out loud; I feel it’s very important for us all to understand that good writing involves considerations of cadence and rhythm and tone and style, that language is rhythmical, and that meaning is conveyed through harmony of expression and clarity of form. Hearing sentences sounded out through the reading aloud helps students understand what’s at stake. Reading aloud helps students get to know each other; it also develops self-confidence and improves public speaking skills.

Students quickly begin to develop a better understanding of what they want to say and how they want to say it as they read their work and receive positive feedback. My students are expected to compose a minimum of 750 words each week. Every fourth week that minimum length is doubled. We follow a two step process: when the rough draft is ready, students email it to me. I edit it carefully, and return it the next class, often suggesting that we set up a time to meet and go over the corrections and suggestions I’ve indicated. Then students transcribe the first draft into a final draft, which they add to their writing portfolio. At the end of the semester, each student will bring the portfolio for a final conference, where we discuss the work that has been accomplished for the semester, and determine the final grade they will receive for the course.

I’m not claiming that my approach to teaching writing is sophisticated or profound; in fact, I feel a need to keep things simple, and stick to the basics. I believe that one learns how to write by doing a lot of writing, and that one writes best about topics that hold an intrinsic interest for the individual. I think lively brainstorming through stimulating class discussions is essential for generating topics, and for teaching crucial critical thinking skills. I also think it is helpful to post sample essays from members of the group on some kind of class bulletin board — via an email distribution list, for example — for all to see, consider, and evaluate. I think it is useful for the instructor to provide examples of his own writing to serve as a model of what effective writing can be, and to demonstrate the fact that nobody’s writing is ever perfect. I think careful editing, individual conferencing, and preparation of final drafts from edited copies are all essential aspects of the writing process. I believe that learning how to write effective personal essays on topics they choose themselves will enable my students to perform well on assignments that require them to do formal academic writing, as well, because they will have mastered strong critical thinking skills, and become competent and fluent in written expression.

As a writing teacher, I’m constantly feeling my way around in the dark, trying to read and understand as much as I can, trying to benefit from the experience and insights of my colleagues, and from feedback offered by my students. In the end, I won’t be able to really tell if any of my strategies have been successful, except insofar as my students feel able to tackle writing assignments with more confidence and competence in the future. Maybe that is something I’ll never really know about for sure, unless perhaps I run into a few of them down the road and they say to me, “Walsh, I sure am glad I took your course, because it helped me become a better writer.” If that should ever happen, I hope they also convey that they learned how to appreciate and enjoy writing in my class, and that they now incorporate it more fully into all aspects of their lives. I believe that we’re all here on earth to learn how to cooperate and work together in community with each other in pursuit of commonly desired goals, creating happy, fulfilling, satisfying lives for ourselves and our children. I’m the kind of dreamer John Lennon was talking about, I suppose. I see my role as a teacher as a privileged one, where I am able to work with and for the young, contributing to a cooperative process, one where we are all engaged together in helping to build a better world, a world we can share and celebrate.

I feel sometimes like I want to apologize to my students for not being as fully effective a teacher as I’d like to be, and at such moments I think of lines from a favorite songwriter, Neil Young, an old friend of mine I’ve never met, but one who has, through the transformative power of his words, played an important role in enabling me to understand the world we all live in and share. Perhaps these words I borrow from him here will help my students comprehend more fully what it is I am hoping we can accomplish as we continue in this reciprocal process of learning how to write together:

“Sometimes I ramble on and on
Repeat myself till all my friends are gone
Get lost in snow and drown in rain
And never feel the same again;
But I remember the ocean from where I came
Just one of millions – all the same.
I’ve got the will to love,
Never going to lose the will to love;
It’s like something from up above
I’ll never lose the will to love.”

When all is said and done, effective teaching is just one more manifestation of human love, among many.

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