Get Down in the Muck

I have a confession to make.

The main reason I’m by nature a poet rather than a fiction writer is that I just can’t stand the day-in/day-out slog at one long project. My moods swing too often from self-confidence-bordering-on-foolhardiness to despair-at-ever-amounting-to-anything. On good days, I feel a genius in my words; on bad days, it’s all just so much dust. Undoubtedly I take myself too seriously, but on the other hand, Zen placidity produces little art, and certainly none of any length. So I devote myself to verse, to blog entries, to Twitter posts, and to writing or editing chapters in instructional materials. I’ve learned that these are the tasks I can wrap my head around and produce some writing.

If I, as a professional writer for twenty-five years, still have to wrestle with motivation in this way, imagine what it must be like for high schoolers and middle schoolers facing imposed assignments. They know that anything they might write has been written a million times before, and almost certainly better.

Granted, they may find some excitement in discovery when writing a research report about a history or science topic (assuming they aren’t intellectually frightened to death by the rigors of documentation style). Chances are that they’re less likely to see the point of writing a literary critique: Most young people are unable to detach themselves from their received cultural values enough to entertain a theme that challenges those values, and many school systems seem to prefer reinforcing local mores anyway, rather than opening them to question. This may explain why so many writing assignments involve relatively empty comparison-contrast essays of this theme or this character versus that. But ultimately, who really cares how Kurtz and Leggatt are alike in their relationships to their respective narrators, while moderately different in their fates? As my mother would say, “What does this have to do with the price of eggs?”

To remain aware of what writing means to students, to know their struggles with it, to make assignments that mean something more than merely practice in a form (and which teach something more than “writing is boring”), we really need to write along with them. Every time a writing assignment is made, the teacher needs to write to that same assignment afresh, modeling each step in the writing process, demonstrating how messy it all can be. This will help ensure that writing assignments remain relevant and practical rather than merely academic. It’s also the best chance for a teacher to demonstrate the joy of writing.

—Les

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