Quick Tip Tuesday: The Writing Life

May 26th, 2009

Essays provide an opportunity for students to debate what is fact and what is fiction,” writes Kimberly Hill Campbell in her book, Less Is More: Teaching Literature with Shorts Texts, Grades 6-12. “They offer an alternative to those students who don’t embrace ‘stuff that isn’t real.’ Essays can also be used to teach specific reading skills such as locating information, summarizing ideas, and making connections among concepts,” Kimberly writes. In this weeks’ Quick Tip, Kimberly shows how she uses essays about writing in her classroom.

Essays About Writing
Writing is hard work. I think students need to know this. I want them to read about and understand the work of writing by reading essays about writing. In my own struggles to write, I have found comfort and inspiration in the words of people who share their insights about their own process of putting words on paper. It is not some magical process that just happens, at least it’s not for most writers.

I once imagined myself living the life of a writer: light spilled across me perched at an antique desk, a sturdy coffee mug in hand, with book-lined shelves surrounding windows looking out on the enormous backyard of my huge house, paid for by the royalties from my award-winning books. The real picture, as I write this book, is I am sitting in my dining room, which does have very nice windows, and it is cloudy outside. Books are strewn across the table and stacked on the floor. The timer on the dryer just buzzed so I have towels to fold. I always do laundry when I write. Something about the sorting process helps me sort out what I am trying to say. I have just a few hours before my kids get home from school, which will end my writing day. A cup of lukewarm coffee is sitting on a coaster near me. I always choose a coffee blend in support of my writing project. My rule is that I can drink this good coffee only if I am writing. What I need to learn is how to drink the good coffee while it is still warm.

I write on a laptop. Next to the laptop is a legal pad on which I scribble notes to myself about quotes I want to add or places I need to add more details. The room in which I write is quiet; music distracts me. When I get stuck, I find it helpful to read about writing. I particularly appreciate Donald Murray’s advice regarding voice and writing:”Most important of all voice. I do not begin to write until l hear the voice of the writing, and when that voice fades during drafting, rewriting/replanning, or revising, I stop, make myself quiet, and listen until I hear again. The music of the writing, more than anything else, teaches me what I am learning about the subject to make those thoughts and feelings clear. And when the writing doesn’t go well, the most effective tactic is to listen, quietly, carefully to the writing. If I listen closely enough the writing will tell me what to say and how to say it. As Jayne Anne Phillips says, ‘It’s like being led by a whisper.'” (1991,10)

Like many of you, I shared writers’ thoughts on writing with my students during writing workshop: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (1994) is a personal favorite. But I was fortunate to stumble across several collections in which authors wrote essays about writing—the challenges, the joys, the process, the hard work. I found myself informed by their insights and tricks of the trade, inspired by their craft and oddly comforted by the fact that so many of the authors whose words I savored admitted to struggle in putting those words on paper. I realized students needed to see these essays, for their message and for their craft as essays.

Teaching Strategy: The Writing Life
Before they read about the writing life of others, I wanted my students to spend some time reflecting on their own writing life. I shared my own essay, which expanded on the brief description I included above about my writing life, and then invited students to write about their writing life: what discoveries have you made about what supports you as writers? Think about the places you write, the paper you use, your writing instrument of choice.

One of my students wrote that she prefers pencil; she likes the feel of the lead on paper and the way the words she writes look soft. Another student wanted roller ball, black ink pens, the expensive kind. My own daughter prefers gel pens and Hello Kitty notebook paper. Other students shared their frustration in having to handwrite; they prefer writing on computer. Many students spoke of their need for music while writing and the role of different songs in inspiring their writing.

I also encouraged students to think about the content of their writing—what inspires them? I was surprised and delighted to learn that the pictures I tore out of old calendars and posted on the classroom walls were a frequent source of inspiration, particularly the Monet prints. I also asked students to focus on the process of writing: the work of revision, editing, putting words on paper even when the words don’t feel right. I admitted to them that I don’t do much prewriting on paper. All those webs and outlines I see other writers use intrigue me, but they don’t help me.

I need time to let myself think, to percolate as Tom Romano calls it (often my head is percolating as I sort laundry), and then I write on a laptop computer, typing as quickly as I can. My typing teacher, Mrs. Moore, would be very proud of me. After we write about our own processes as writers, I invite students to share. We discover what makes us unique and what commonalities we all share. We then read an essay about writing. As we read, I ask students to note “ahas” about writing—what does this author say about writing? We focus on the same issues we explored in our own writing: place, equipment, inspiration, process. We share
our ahas in a class discussion. We then reread the essay, focusing our attention on the essay’s craft: how does the author convey his or her message?

I follow this whole-class read by asking students to choose from a variety of essays about writing. Using the same two-prong response, students first write in their literature logs about lessons learned from writers about writing and then note observations regarding the author’s craft.

Next students work in groups to create writing lesson posters for the classroom. They make visual the strategies and the words used to convey the strategies. I am always heartened to see students including their own quotes on these posters. And as we post them in the room, my hope is that they will provide inspiration and support my goal to create a community of writers, a place where students see themselves as writers and discover what they can learn from other writers. I want them to understand that the hard work of writing can inform and inspire readers. I want them to find essays about writing that they can turn to when they need to be reminded why we write. I want my students to see writing as work worth doing.

As for what essay I choose to read as a class, it depends. I try to select an essay written by an author we have previously read, or an essay that will make us laugh, or an essay that addresses an issue I know students are struggling with in their own writing. I used this same criteria in creating a selection of essays about writing from which students choose.

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday,Writing

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