Tuesday, December 30, 2014
THE Writing Process?
In ways, my wife, Joyce, and I are very different. She loves salads and veggies; I prefer bread and crackers. She likes to work late in the evening; I hit the sack (to read and watch films) by 7 p.m. She likes to exercise early in the morning; I prefer the later afternoon. I could go on--but won't because pretty soon I'll come to some things I'd rather not confess, things that don't reflect well on me (like preferences in movies).
Before I go on, I need to sketch a little background. Not long before I retired from public school teaching (January 1997), the World of English Teaching was falling in love with "the writing process." The thinking sort of went like this: Kids' writing pretty much sucks. Part of the problem--maybe a big part--is that kids often don't know how to proceed when they have a writing assignment. So ... let's teach The Writing Process ... teach kids how to create a piece of writing, from brainstorming to planning to drafting to revising ...
Sounds sensible--unless you've ever read any biographies of actual writers (who differ wildly from one another in their writing habits) or unless you consider the case of Joyce and me.
Let's do that--consider Joyce and me.
Right now, Joyce is in her fourth full draft of her book about Abolitionist John Brown, a process that's taken her about seven years. I'm not going to say much about what she says in that book--for two reasons: (1) that's her job, not mine; (2) she hasn't yet allowed me to read any of her drafts, so I can speak only generally (even vaguely) about her text. But I do know this: From having watched Joyce write all of her other books, I know that her "process" is very unlike the one that we thought we could use with kids--and I know, also, that her "process" is very unlike my own. And that it works, for her, spectacularly well.
Here's what she does (I think): She gets an idea (I live in the town where John Brown grew up; I think I want to write about that), then starts writing, all the while she's reading everything she can about him (and the attendant issues--race, slavery, etc.), all the while visiting key sites in the John Brown story (from Kansas' Pottawatomie Creek to Harpers Ferry to Richfield, Ohio, to ...). Her book evolves; she revises continually; she figures out what she's saying as she's saying it. It's stunning to witness. (William Godwin, by the way (Mary Shelley's father), a prolific writer himself, once wrote (I'm quoting freely now) that he didn't write to say what he thought; he wrote to figure out what he thought.)
I'm very different. In my YA biographies of Jack London, Mary Shelley, and Edgar Poe, for example, I first read everything they'd written, all the other biographies, all the relevant social and cultural histories (with Poe, for example, I read biographies of all the men who were president during his lifetime, 1809-1849--Madison, Monroe, JQ Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, W. H. Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor )--and only then, when I felt I'd read everything (impossible, I know), did I start writing--and I started writing only when I'd made a sort of rough outline of where I was headed. (My plans do change: I take detours all the time.)
I think about the writing habits of all sorts of famous folk. Percy Bysshe Shelley liked to write his poems out of doors. Hemingway and Philip Roth wrote standing up. Proust and Twain (later) wrote in bed. John O'Hara wrote all night at his typewriter. Jack London wrote 1000 words, longhand, the first thing every morning, seven days a week. Emily Dickinson wrote during the cracks in the day. Scott Fitzgerald and Edgar Poe wrote in furious flurries of activity. And on and on and on.
So--in my view--the better thing is not to teach kids the writing process (there is none) but to help them figure out what their processes are. What works for you, Tom? Eleanor? Dan? Joyce? And what doesn't? (I remember that one of my own high school English teachers required us to turn in an outline with our "themes"; many of us wrote the outline after we'd written the paper.)
If we do this--broaden our scope, show kids numerous ways to approach a writing task--well, maybe then kids' writing will no longer live in the Land of Suckery.