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An intermittent blog

Writing What You Want to Read

Originally published on Burlington College's blog, Mar 6, 2015 9:00:00 AM

“If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” —Toni Morrison

With few exceptions, I’ve found that students in my classes—whether at Burlington College or the previous institutions where I’ve taught — have not felt that their K-12 writing instruction encouraged them to write what they wanted to read. More often, they’ve learned to master a five-paragraph essay structure filled with content they know will fit what their teachers, or more distantly, the people who sit in cubicles scoring their writing samples, will want and expect to see.

That’s why I believe my first task as a teacher of writing, whether it is in the context of a first-year seminar such as Your Brain: An Owner’s Manual or What Is an Artist? or a dedicated writing course such as Creative Writing, is to coax my students away from the formulaic writing that has served primarily to help them pass standardized tests. I want them to relearn, or learn for the first time if they’ve never known it before, the simple joy of communicating on paper. This is the basis for writing well, even in the academic writing that will play an increasing role in a student’s life.

One strategy for breaking out of the five-paragraph essay straight-jacket goes by the acronym RAFTS. RAFTS (Role/Audience/Format/Topic/Strong Intention) asks us to think about the various roles we assume as writers, the various audiences for whom we write, the formats available to us, the topics about which we can choose to write, and the strong purpose behind our efforts. Breaking open the “rules” about what a paper should look like means I have to, as the instructor, create a rubric that is clear and concise, but allows writers to experiment. Fortunately, this isn’t hard to do, and the results are that I look forward to reading a stack of papers because I know each one will have something truly unique to offer: a zombie comic book on brain nourishment, for example, or a short story that incorporates research on depression, a personal reflection on the creative process, or an artist’s manifesto.

This does not necessarily make writing easier. In fact, students sometimes say it is more difficult to have the freedom to make choices about what and how to communicate. Writing and reading require work. These are not skills that come “naturally,” having been programmed into our DNA by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. We don’t learn to read or write the way we learn to walk, impelled by the developmental programs tucked into our genes. It is something humans have figured out how to do by deliberately re-purposing those ancient circuits. To read and write, we have to abstract, to move from actual experience to represented, symbolized experience.

Writing is first a process of discovery, then of organization, of constructing coherence. Unless we are writing entirely for ourselves, as we do in journaling, writing demands that we consider the intended audience for our communication. The entire process takes time, which is one reason those of us who planned our Open Spaces first-year seminars together agreed that we would include at least one writing assignment that we would expect to be revised. We don’t arrive at our best writing by pulling an all-nighter hours before the due date. We need to mull. We need, literally, to sleep on it. We need to keep posing the question to ourselves: How can we refine our writing to maximize its effectiveness? We re-vision (see again) and re-organize. Sometimes, we start over at the beginning and try an entirely new direction. We tweak, we polish, we proofread.

Through all those stages, all that effort is transformative. Ultimately, writing is a process of change. When we have completed a writing task, there is something in the world that never existed before, and it has both enlarged and become part of us. And it has also enhanced the world for those who read our words.

My goal as a teacher of writing, then, is to help my students discover their own stories, explore their own creativity, identify their own purposes, set their own priorities, find their audiences, learn the skills and metacognitive strategies that serve them in all these regards, and grow as a result.

I want them to be able to write the stories they want to read. When they do that, they create stories I want to read, too.