Troubles with Writing

According to family stories, I composed mangled (but apparently highly expressive) Christmas carols, almost as soon as I could talk. I used those little wooden alphabet blocks to build my own typewriter, and then imitated my mom, tap tap tap. I was getting a kick out of writing before I could write.

Year by year, in school, I loved most the teachers who assigned the most writing. Mrs. Duleba, second grade, shared her invaluable confidence that meaning mattered more than spelling. I’m forever grateful to George Batchelder, who thought English class should be fun, and to the State of New York for saying (in 1960) that seventh and eighth grade students should have two periods of English, every day—which gave us room and time to do actual writing, as well as diagramming sentences. Oh, and to the school administrators, for letting Mr. Batchelder be my English teacher for two full years of essays with titles like “When Mother Drives Father’s Car.”

Early attempts at humor aside, all my life I have thought more clearly with a pen in my hand or a keyboard under my fingers. In a rough stretch in college, I kept myself going by writing about why I couldn’t write what I was supposed to be writing. Writing has helped me survive many kinds of hard times, and it has been a source of joy, and a vehicle for joy, a way to let joy travel into other lives, or into my own life, later.

When I started teaching, I thought, “Aha, I finally have full right to read all the papers being passed towards the front of the room,” something I got in trouble for when I was younger. Gradually, though, I realized that the hardest thing to teach can be what comes naturally to you. I struggled to understand why writing was so hard for some of my students.

StefanI didn’t take photographs of kids not writing–too mean. Sometimes, though, when I was supposedly writing along with them, I did quick sketches. So this is Stefan (now a thoroughly successful adult) curled into a pretzel to hold himself still for long enough to get a few words onto paper.

Classes and conferences and reading have helped me understand better. I’ve also extrapolated, sideways, from the many other things that challenge me, and I’ve looked carefully at my own bouts with writer’s block. As teachers, we have to value whatever we know in our own learning selves about our students’ challenges. Above all, fortunately, the circumstances of my teaching let me learn from students.

Talking with kids, all kinds of kids, it came clear to me that written language is both commonplace and tricky in human experience.

Books and a long string of PBS documentaries told me that we haven’t been using written language very long, in the evolution of the human tool set. (By tool set, I mean both our physical equipment and coordination, and our cognitive abilities.) We’ve evolved to shout, to sing, to run, to dance. Also to gossip; to complain; to give praise. (So happy, for me, to visualize young adolescents doing all those things!) What comes naturally for us can overflow usefully into writing, can claim writing as tool. Still, we haven’t evolved to write.

Writing is complicated. I once heard Mel Levine make a powerful case for this. (Like many other teachers and parents and kids who learned from Levine, I’m trying to let his wisdom survive his wrongdoing.) Levine listed things a writer has to think about, all at once: ordering sentences; spelling individual words; forming letters; using the tiny, powerful signals of punctuation; structuring paragraphs; choosing between similar words that mean different things, or different words that mean similar things.

Listening to Levine, I thought: well, that makes bowling seem simple. For me, bowling is a nightmare. I stop looking at the pins to think about my feet, and suddenly my hand is no longer holding the ball reliably, and I’m liable to drop it. I’m easily distracted by the conversation of the people bowling in the next lane. (Are they sisters? Friends? Co-workers? What’s this they keep saying about horses?) I haven’t bowled in years, but I remember clearly the sensation of trying to solve the Rubik’s Cube of my own body, to do everything right at once, with all my limbs—especially while other more interesting things were claiming my attention.

I’ve come to understand that for many kids, that’s how it feels to write, either physically or cognitively.

Bearing in mind the evolutionary novelty of it all, and grateful for the supplement of human culture (including technology), I’ve watched some kids discover that they feel fine writing on a keyboard, which removes the difficulty with forming each letter—just a keystroke does it—and makes it so much easier to control spacing and organization on a page. I’ve watched other kids get a crucial power assist from software that translates a voice into written text.

Those bypass strategies for physical challenge don’t necessarily simplify complex cognitive challenges. Writing demands enormous coordination of attention and memory, enormous stamina for making choices and weaving them together. Pre-writing activities can help to some degree. Still, like me eavesdropping on the people in the next lane at the bowling alley, a kid can very easily be distracted by what’s going on in her head, including the other way she considered phrasing whatever she started to say. Kaboom—the two phrasings have a crash collision, and the reader is left to pick over the pieces.

In one of my favorite examples of the ways kids can advocate for each other, an eleven-year-old born writer once said to me, ‟You really can’t ask R. to worry about punctuation yet. He’s trying hard just to keep the beginning of the sentence in mind while he writes the end.”

sad girlThen there’s the endless circus of early puberty, easy to dismiss as generic, but in fact a different journey, with different rewards and different obstacles for each child. There’s also emotional trouble: for example, the kid who is keeping a scary secret so huge she can barely think, let alone write spontaneously or thoughtfully, since both of those require some inner freedom.

Sometimes I watched the struggles of the child who’d been told too many times that he was a good writer, who became, with the self-consciousness of early puberty, his own impossibly hard act to follow.

That brings me back to my own experience: writing helped heal emotional wounds, helped make sense of confusing changes and challenges, helped hold and channel euphoria. Wisely or foolishly, I wanted the powers of writing to be available to every child with whom I worked–wanted that just as intensely as I wanted the magic wand that could remove all their troubles. (Not a good idea, of course.)

I cared a lot about kids, and I had faith in the power of language—and that meant I had a huge incentive to figure out the strategies I’ll write about next time, for how to help kids just get words on the page.

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