An author's take on writing—and looking.
I have never been a schoolteacher. I’ve taught writing workshops for adults and grade school children and high schoolers, but the only thing I’ve ever taught middle school kids is how to test the Charles River for nitrates. Oh, and how to triangulate, and that reeds and rushes are round, sedges have edges, and grasses are flat, which I think is actually very poetic.
When I was in high school and college, I was a counselor and then the director of an environmental-science program that took place in a suburb of Boston. We had daily trips to local nature sites, which meant we trudged along little roads parallel to Route 9 with our backpacks and hiking boots and water and field guides. It was not extremely “cool,” and some of the kids resented this and some of them relished it, but most of all they learned something about the process of science—a way of looking, breaking things down into steps, the small parts that make up the whole work of navigating, water testing, identifying trees by their leaves and bark and the way they spread their arms over the trails.
We had longer, far more exotic trips, too, to the White Mountains and the Blue Hills and Kittery, Maine, where we mucked about in salt- marsh channels and then tried to look, instead of floundering in slippery tide pools.
All of this is really about writing.
For me, it turns out, most things are about writing. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke was obsessed with looking, with the way we look at the world and what it contains and what it does not. You English teachers probably know much more about this than I do, but when I was in graduate school and memorized a translation of Rilke’s “The Turning Point,” I was especially moved by how “stars fell to their knees” under the pressure of his gaze. I realized how much science, especially the environmental science that looked both without, at the view for triangulation, and within, at the organisms under the microscope in a water sample, is like writing: It is all in the way we look, and all about that process of identification.
Luckily, in writing, there are infinite ways of identifying the same thing. We use tools: adjectives, nouns, verbs, dialogue, plot, character, setting, the senses—and sensory writing is, at least for me, the most memorable—to break down the world into manageable bits; to break down the world of daily life, or a novel, or a poem, into manageable bits.
I have a friend who is a writer and an editor who recently said to me, “I’m not sure I’m ready to write a novel. You know, that long-term-commitment thing.” Well, as wife and mother of two—children, as well as novels—I thought that was sort of funny, because novels are indeed about commitment, as are short stories, as are poems, as are journal entries and showing up for lunchroom duty each day. As is tying your shoelaces (though I must admit I prefer clogs, because you can hold one child’s hand and change a diaper while putting on your shoes if they’re clogs), as is accepting, or even quitting, a job. The length of term may be at issue for each of these things, but they’re all part of a daily process.
Writing is about process, not product.
As is writing. Writing is about process, not product, which is not to say my editor would give me a check for a pile of notes and vignettes (there are a very few authors who get away with this, and we all know it when we see it). But for those of us who are beginners (a great state; sometimes I go back to being a beginner, like when I start a new book, though I wouldn’t go back to being 13 even if I knew the end of the story), as students are in some ways—when we are first learning how to look, how to break down the whole into manageable parts, then put them back together again, we tend to focus a bit too much on product.
One of the most important things I learned in junior high school, when I was in English class and wrote about my own hiking trip as a student in the environmental-science program, was that I was good at something: that writing process.
As teachers, I think it’s important to start with the joy of that process, of being a beginner each time, casting off preoccupation with the rules of grammar and punctuation and spelling and product when we set about writing a first draft. Sure, there’s a lot to clean up later, but there’s something fresh and raw to start with. Your kids know things. They can all look at the same place—the back door of the school, the fence in front of the brook—and see something different.
This said, I’d like to give you some topics and ideas to take back to your kids. I highly recommend good books on writing, such as those by Natalie Goldman, including Writing Down the Bones, and Judy Reeves’ A Writer’s Book of Days, and others that can be found in the writing section of your local bookstore. Go and dig around in there, so that you’ll be able to make your own list of rules for what I call “writing practice.” This involves breaking down writing into little bursts of energy (and I know your students have those). When I teach workshops, whether in poetry, fiction, or writing practice, I set up, for the perpetually distracted, a list of “rules” for first drafts, things like keep moving, don’t think, don’t worry about mistakes, don’t be nice, just write. We read the rules as a group and then we set to the topic at hand. I recommend that students do the same, whether they’re working on a longer assignment or writing for five minutes about the lighting of the room.
For teachers, it's important to start with the joy of the writing process, of being a beginner each time.
Armed with these writing-practice rules, you would do well to take your students on a field trip—a real one, to somewhere outside, with places you can park the students and have them write for 10-minute stretches. It’s wonderful, for example, to go to an art museum, or a science museum—to stop somewhere with notebooks and say, “OK, no talking, just looking and writing for 10 minutes: Write what you see. Or write what you hear. Or start with: She loved to go to the museum because ... or she hated the museum because ...” (It’s important to note that writing in the third person can be very freeing for students, and for grown-up students, too.)
Or the field trip could be around the school, if that’s more manageable. Stop at the locker bank. Have your students write, “The lockers always remind me of ... “ and take it from there. Or, “The gym smells like ...” (Sure, you’re bound to get some kids who write about the smell of jockstraps for 10 minutes, but some will write about the smell of anxiety, or the smell of game, or the smell of tension.) Stop at the cafeteria and have them start, “Someday, I’ll cook for myself. I’ll make ...”
Or if that’s still impractical, have the students take a field trip around the room. Put everyone on the floor, facing the back of the room. Start with, “I never noticed ...” Have them all look out the same window, then sit down and start with, “She didn’t want to be here, she wanted to be ...” Have them sit at someone else’s desk, or take three things out of their book bags, then write about where those items came from. Have them write on a slip of paper somewhere they’ve never been and would like to go, then collect the strips and redistribute. Have the students write about that place, about living there, visiting there; tell them to imagine what the place smells like, sounds like, looks like, what the benches or beaches feel like. Ask them to close their eyes for a full minute. Then have them open their eyes and write about what they saw.
Later on, you as teacher can move these assignments along; you can build. Maybe you want a series of linked poems; maybe you want each of the senses on the same place; maybe you want a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end—you can start with the end or the middle by writing this way. ...
The important thing is that you take a field trip yourself—it’s all about looking.
Gwendolen Gross is a novelist whose work includes Field Guide (now in paperback from Harcourt) and Getting Out (Henry Holt, 2002). She lives in Ridgewood, N.J., and frequently teaches and lectures on writing.