Thursday, October 03, 2013

Fleeting Thoughts On Teaching Writing

I was writing a letter today, and ... wait ... what? You're not sure what a letter is? Very well, let's back up a bit, and define our terms.

A letter is "a written or printed communication addressed to a person or organization and usually transmitted by mail."

"Mail" is something many of us used to send and receive on a regular basis. When we were in college, we used to walk into the dorm, peer into one of these:

and, if there was this thing called "a letter" inside that little box, we got very excited. It meant someone was thinking of us. Not only thinking, but doing something about it. A letter meant they'd taken the time to create a piece of written communication, fold it up (either in thirds, or in some bizarre, origami-like creation), place it in an envelope, write an address, and lick a stamp. (We used to have to lick stamps. It was disgusting.)

So, you see, these things called letters were valued parts of a relationship. Anyway, now that we're clear on what letters are and on how they are delivered through this system called the mail, I can get back to my point, rambly though it may be.

Today I was out with Ramona, and while waiting for her to finish an activity, I wrote a letter. I finished the letter, closed the notebook in which I'd been writing, and dropped the notebook in my bag with a triumphant finality.

Suddenly, I had a thought: "Oh, no! I wish I had thought to tell her about .... Ack. Too late."

It doesn't really matter what the afterthought was. The point is that, for a split second, my mind was living in a land where it was too late to change what I had written. I had already written it -- my internet-addled brain was telling me -- and therefore it was gone. Immediately, of course, I realized my mistake. Nothing had whooshed through the universe. Not only could I add a postscript to the letter, I could throw the whole thing away and start over if I wanted to. It was not too late for anything.

I'm not leading up to a discussion about the internet rewiring our brains -- you can find discussions like that all over the place. Instead, what occurred to me was the implication for kids and writing -- for teaching writing.  Kids (and the rest of us) spend so much time tapping out thoughts then hitting Enter that we are indeed living lives where once the thoughts are on paper sent, it is too late to retrieve them.

That made me think about how many kids fear putting those first words on paper, fear the first draft. It can be paralyzing. It all just seems so final to them. (And okay, we needn't dig too deep to find reasons for fear of first drafts -- those have always been around. Maybe this is just one of the modern reasons.)

Writing, young writers need to learn, is a process through which you can always take it back, throw it out, or start over. I mentioned in this post that perhaps the single most important thing for young writers to learn is that rough drafts are called "rough" for a reason. Rough drafts are not glossy and good; they're not supposed to be. Kids need to learn to embrace crossing out, scribbling, rewriting, being messy, crumpling paper, starting fresh, thinking it through, sleeping on it. Revision (as then-twelve-year-old-Anne-with-an-e and I discussed in this post) is at the heart of writing.

FB updates, texts, tweets, emails ... we can't revise once we've clicked. But an essay, a short story? A research paper, a novel, a poem? We don't have to send them into the world until we're ready. No need to feel post-click regret.

Maybe if I wrote those old-timey things called letters a little more often, I wouldn't have forgotten that.


Melanie Bettinelli said...

I love the emphasis on writing as a process. A messy process. That was the one thing I really wanted to communicate to my college students when I taught composition.

I need to write letters more too.

sarah said...

Such good thoughts here.

tanita♥davis said...

I find this to be true in a way it maybe wasn't when I was teaching before - I watch the nephew - in Kindergarten this year - and last year, he was terrified to make a mistake. We'd put that wide-lined paper in front of him, and encourage him to doodle around and write his name, and there was no back button, and he HATED IT. A backwards E just sat there and STARED at him, put his wrongness right in his face.

He was paralyzed by the empty page.

His life will be SO DIFFERENT than mine, because we're starting out from vastly differing areas of the world...

Jennifer said...

Love this. I'm trying to help M understand the process part of it and that messy is OK.
Speaking of writing letters... Can you tell Ramona that *someone* keeps forgetting to buy stamps so that her daughter can actually send those letters.

Karen Edmisten said...

Melanie, I think you're ahead of me on letters ... or at least on post cards. :)
Sarah -- thanks!
And Tanita, I agree -- it's changing so awfully fast.
Jenn, message delivered. :)