Not long before I retired from Harmon (Middle) School in January 1997, the English-teaching world was aswim in a new sea--the sea of The Writing Process. Somewhere--somehow--some way--someone had figured out that writers use a process when they write (!) and that all we have to do is strip that process down to its essentials, teach it to kids, then sit back and watch the scores on standardized writing tests roar off like rockets.
I've repressed most of it, I think, but I know The Writing Process involved steps like these: Prewriting-Drafting-Revising-Preparing for Publication (i.e., turning it in to the teacher, reading it aloud, submitting it to the judges in Stockholm, whatever).
And so we teachers dutifully set down to business--giving kids some time in class to "prewrite" and "draft," then sending them home to finish (where, of course, they would "revise" and "prepare for publication"). Or maybe we had kids do the whole thing in class--while we drifted around and consulted, put out brush fires, asked Billy where his paper was, found a pencil for Susie (who'd lost hers), figured out what to do with Simon (whose writing hand was broken), dealt with Norman (who didn't feel like writing that day), asked Darrell why his prewriting was on his hand, weighed requests to go to the bathroom, mediated an argument between Boyd and Betty (who were debating who said what to whom and why at lunch yesterday), ...
And guess what? The Writing Process worked for some kids--for those kids who thought and worked well in a linear fashion. But The Writing Process failed miserably for other kids, those who had perfectly sensible ways of doing their writing assignments, perfectly sensible ways that did not exactly align with The Writing Process.
I remembered the feeling. A number of my own junior high and high school English teachers required us to submit an outline with our essays in school. I know that I was not the only one who wrote the paper first, the outline second. (It always struck me as bizarre that you were supposed to know what you were going to write before you wrote it. Writing for me--for many--is figuring out what you're going to say as you're writing; revision establishes some order and grace.) But for a long time I thought there was something wrong with me: Why can't I just do an outline first?
Later this spring a book is coming out describing how scores of famous writers, painters, choreographers, and composers went/go about their work (some are no longer with us--like Dickens).
And should we be surprised by what the writer found?
I'm getting ready to review a memoir by one of the most successful American artists of the past thirty years. Here's what he says about his work: "I never started a painting with a vision of what it would ultlimately look like or a definite idea of what it was about. ... Every painting of mine is a search for meaning."
I need go no farther than my own house for more more evidence. Joyce figures out things by writing. She writes endless drafts until she figures out what she's doing, then puts it all together. She can also write all day and into the night with no diminished capacity.
Not I. I work things out in my head--take some notes (not much)--and generally know where I'm headed by the time I sit in front of the screen--though I am always surprised by what emerges from my fingers, too. My revision is mostly shaping and polishing. I can write only a few hours a day before I lose it.
Teaching everyone a single way of doing something is often a bad idea--though not always (think: driver education). I figured out (after many decades) that the best thing I could do as a teacher was to help kids figure out what kind of writers they were--help them figure out what worked for them. Individually. I think we were all a lot happier with the results.
The best writing process, really, is whatever works for you--even when you hand is broken or you're annoyed with Boyd for that snotty thing he said out at lunch ...