How do we learn to write?

Times have changed, or else my memory of childhood has faded. Was I taught to write at school? I must have been, but have no recollection of it. I remember writing, and loving it, but not being taught the mechanics of writing. My grand-daughter, well schooled towards her Year 6 SATS in England, knows all the conventions of writing. She explained to me very patiently the difference between a metaphor and a simile and I’m sure she was correct. And here in Winnipeg I spent yesterday working with teachers on the demands and implications of the English Language Arts (ELA they call it here) Grade 8 common exam. Here again were all the rules of the writing game to be learned and demonstrated, assessed and reported. I must have done some of this stuff, but when, and how?

I think I learned to write through reading and analysing – subconsciously? – how the words created images or conveyed information. Reading aloud seemed to convey more to me than reading to myself. I loved the sound and rhythm of the words, and the way that punctuation affected the pace. English lessons in the sixth form were a disaster: the teacher read his own notes on the set books and we wrote them down. We were supposed to replicate his commentary in our carefully balanced essays, but even at that age I balked. My view of Emily Bronte certainly didn’t square with his.

The other clear memory from school of using language thoughtfully is in translating from French into English, trying to convey not just the technical meaning of the words but the feel of them too, saying a phrase over and over to find the right cadence. Maybe that’s why the poem that I wrote many years later for my daughter’s homework project got an A. I was proud of that poem, even though it had her name on it.

Now I’m thinking about the writing workshop I have planned for January. It’s just a day, and will focus not on the language, the shape of a sentence or the choice of a word, but on structure. That’ll be all we can manage, albeit superficially. But how would I set about teaching someone to write? Read, read, read would be the first advice, and consider the various facets of what the author has intended and achieved. Look at the balance of the sentence, its length, shape and flow, the sound of the words. On the first Arvon course I went on we did all the usual exercises, which were necessary I’m sure, but I was more interested in how a longer form of prose might be put together. I learned so much that week, but still keep learning through reading as much as writing. And I’ve learned that my first draft might be OK, but it can be so much improved through re-writing. Maybe that’s something I can teach people at my workshop, using iterative examples of the same opening paragraph, for example, to show what a difference our choices can make.

Nearly 40 years ago, in 1976, I did a year’s teaching in a massive senior high school in Ohio. There were 3,700 students aged from 13-18, and I was one of twenty teachers in the Social Studies department, and the only woman. That’s a story all on its own. Many of my students took a course called ‘Senior Composition’ in which, ostensibly, they learned to write. It became clear to me why many US non-fiction books were so hard to read. The rules of ‘Senior Comp.’ were rigid. and the students’ products were consequently dry, formulaic and lifeless. I was a young teacher, and a foreigner, so what did I know? I knew enough even then to know that writing needs to reflect the mind and spirit of the writer, not a set of rules imposed from without. Of course there are conventions to be respected, but they are to be employed not revered.

Read, read, write, read aloud, re-write, get good feedback and pay attention, re-write again. Sounds laborious, but what finally emerges is recogniseably yours, as unique as the person who wrote it.

For a while I’ve toyed with the idea of doing a Creative Writing degree. I think I’ve just talked myself out of it.

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