The writing process may be harder to map than the human genome, especially since every writer’s method, indeed every individual project, varies so much. Some writers begin by freewriting. Some start with an outline. I have a friend who takes walks while speaking ideas into a tape recorder.
Today’s writing shift began with chopping an onion, some mushrooms, a couple of zucchini and a few potatoes. I browned a half-pound of ground beef, scraped corn off a fresh cob and pulled one of the last bags of last year’s green chile from the freezer and put them on the stove to simmer. Cooking is a frequent part of my writing routine, especially when I have the house to myself and can unselfconsciously test ideas and phrases aloud while I chop and sauté. Who knows why it works. Maybe the sensory experience of slicing veggies and crumbling herbs between my fingers relaxes my verbal brain. Maybe the satisfaction of whipping together a savory concoction lulls me into confidence to begin wrangling words. I don’t know. But the process works for me, and my husband and son appreciate the culinary implications.
If only writing were as simple as following a recipe. Even the most prolific writers confess how difficult it can be to coax words onto the page. (Dorothy Parker: “I hate writing, I love having written.” John McPhee: “On a certain scale, it looks like I [produce] a lot. But that’s my day, all day long, wondering when I’m going to be able to get started.”) For the heck of it, I googled, “Why is writing so hard.” More notable than the pages that popped up was the fact that Google suggested my complete question when I had just entered “why is wr.”
Not surprisingly, teaching writing is also difficult. Methods differ widely and seemingly contradict — as illustrated in this issue’s three Wordweaver articles by three teachers at local elementary, middle and high schools.
Janie Chodosh is a novelist and high school English teacher. In her creative writing classes at Santa Fe Secondary School and summer writing workshops, she invites teens to discover their voice through fun exercises in a safe atmosphere that de-emphasizes rules and structure. “I want my students to loosen up and get away from the fear that their own voice isn’t good enough,” she writes in “Neutralizing the Red Pen,” page 18, “because after all, writing — if nothing else — is about voice. Yes, writing is technical. Yes, there are rules and grammar and sentence structures to master. But without voice, without having something to say and a unique way of saying it, the rest hardly matters.”
Gretchen Peck introduced the Santa Fe Girls’ School to the Jane Schaffer Method, otherwise known as “Chunk Writing.” To Peck, rules and grammar and sentence structures are essential precursors to finding one’s voice. “Practice exercises, even fun and fresh topics, don’t help when students don’t understand the rules or how to reach a desirable outcome,” she says (“Getting Your Facts In Order,” page 16). The Schaffer Method teaches writing through a sequential process, with a prescribed framework and objective criteria. Students progress up a ladder of basic skills before taking on more complicated ones, much like advancing up levels of a video game.
Then we have Bridget Green, a first-grade teacher at Rio Grande School, who believes that even children who are just learning to write have a creative voice. She offers fresh, charming ideas for developing children’s creative writing skills as they are first learning academic ones, so that a child’s natural voice stays alive and matures. “Even in the first-grade classroom, students take writing seriously. We take them seriously as writers…. We focus less on mechanics during creative writing, so that students will trust their skills and get through to forming their ideas.” (“To Write is To Write is To Write,” page 14.)
If these teachers seem to rebut one another, consider that their techniques reflect different objectives. Peck’s focus is academic writing. Thee Schaffer Method is ideally implemented from kindergarten through 12th grade, so that in each new school year children can build on lessons and achievements from the previous one. (I’d love to see more Santa Fe schools adopt — or adapt — this method schoolwide or district-wide.) Chodosh’s creative writing classes are offered as electives or summer workshops, presumably to teens with enough confidence with the written word to take on the challenge of creative writing. Green’s first graders are so new to writing that they don’t draw a hard line between fun writing and school writing, and her delightful exercises aim to keep that connection alive.
But the differences in these methodologies also address the fact that good writing, whatever the genre, has many components: mechanics, sentence structure, voice, conformity and individuality. Blending all these ingredients in a tasty stew takes an adroit verbal chef.
In my own writing life, I’ve reaped lessons from variations on all these approaches. I was lucky to have early teachers who encouraged young students to channel imagination into written words. Being a writer was my earliest “What I want to be when I grow up” fantasy (along with kindergarten teacher and figure skater, as simultaneous careers).
Somewhere in junior high school, writing anxiety set in. At that point I wanted to be a biologist, enticed by the idea of quietly observing things all day (which, basically, is what writers do before they sit down and write things).
Then in 10th grade, I had an English teacher named Monica McMindes, who forced her snarly adolescent students to write compositions according to a strict outline, corralling our ideas into a structure a bit similar to Schaffer’s. I hated it, resented it, felt I was too good for it. (Did it really matter if I used words that didn’t actually exist? Couldn’t she tell what I was trying to say?) By the end of the year my writing was clearer, better organized and more distinct than it had ever been. I wrote my teacher a thank-you letter.
Ms. McMindes would take pride in knowing that my first book, “Farewell, Aleppo: My Father, My People, and Their Long Journey Home,” is coming out in October. The book is about my father’s childhood growing up in an orthodox Jewish community in Aleppo, Syria, and his several years in Shanghai under Japanese occupation before coming to America. It’s been a long time coming and the result of many different writing techniques and God knows how many soups and casseroles.
I’ll be giving a reading at Collected Works Bookstore, 3 p.m. October 5. Please come!
And I hope you’ll peruse and use the methods for teaching writing that our Wordweavers describe in this issue, and share your results and suggestions.