News from the Writing Front: Some Thoughts on Process

Hemingway on Writing

I shared this image and quote from Hemingway at a session I chaired at NCTE in November, and between now and then I’ve done a lot of blood-letting as I’ve plugged away at my book. I’ve also experienced jolts of joy, because as Neil Gaiman writes, “The process of writing can be magical.” From nothing but words you can create whole worlds that can move and affect other people. I also learned a thing or two about myself as a writer that have raised some questions about how we teach writing in classrooms, which I’m feeling an itch to share, along with a handful of great writing quotes that could use a good home.

The big thing I learned (or had to re-learn) is to trust my process. I’m not a fast writer in any way. In fact, the whole idea of writing a flash draft is about as unappealing to me as speed dating or dining at Burger King. That’s not to say that I never do it. I can, if I absolutely have to. And I do try to keep my pen or keyboard fingers moving if I’m writing something exploratory, which I do if I’m stuck or want to play around with an idea or image in my notebook or a new document. But that’s writing for me, not writing for a reader. The minute I’m intentionally writing for a reader (versus an assessment or test scorer), I slow down in order to, as Rachel Carson says, “be still and listen to what [my] subject has to tell [me].” And I’m aware that flies right in the face of both many writers’ advice and current classroom trends.

Shitty First DraftsMany writers, for instance, say it’s important to just get a draft down on paper because, as Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird “you need to start  somewhere,” and giving yourself permission to write what she calls a”shitty first draft,” can help. Likewise, John Steinbeck advised would-be writers to “Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on.”

Advice like this is part of what drives the flash draft trend in schools, but there’s another writing camp of thought that doesn’t get as much press, which does things differently. Here, for instance, is Annie Dillard making a case for writing carefully and slowly right from the start:

“The reason to perfect a piece of prose as it progresses—to secure each sentence before building on it—is that original writing fashions a form. It unrolls out into nothingness. It grows cell to cell, bole to bough to twig to leaf; any careful word may suggest a root, may begin a strand of metaphor or even out of which much, or all, will develop.”

This camp believes in letting the words guide you, which for writer Jayne Anne Phillips means that she writes “line by line, by the sound and the weight and the music of the words,” without too much revision.

Of course, for better or worse, I revise a lot, too (which is why this book is taking so long). But while much of my revising has to do with clarifying my focus and meaning, which inevitably involves moving parts around, I also follow Tom Romano‘s advice for revision from his fabulous essay “How to Write”:

 “Read aloud. Feel the words in your mouth. Listen. Your sense of how language should sound is a great ally. You’ll hear when words make music; you’ll hear when they’re discordant. Make adjustments if you need to . . . honing language, tinkering and tuning.”

I just do that in my first draft, too.

So why do we teach students that writers always write their first drafts quickly when actually that’s not true? It may have to do with the fact that some students can feel inhibited or downright scared at the sight of a blank page or screen, and in that they’re not alone. Writer Margaret Atwood, for instance, has said, “The fact is that blank pages inspire me with terror. What will I put on them? Will it be good enough?” And writing a flash or a shitty first draft can be a way of tricking our minds into leaving those fears behind. It’s also easier to teach kids to write flash drafts than it is to invite, if not teach, them to love language. But as often happens when we take an easy route, we run the risk of simplifying something complex—and, in the case of writing, really hard.

Don't Try to ThinkI also suspect we ask students to write flash drafts as a way of preparing them for on-demand assessments, though the two are different. When it comes to high-stakes performing, for instance, science writer Elizabeth Svoboda, author of “How to Avoid Choking under Pressure,” writes that “If you are well-practiced, just let the learning you have done unfold under the force of unconscious rather than conscious thinking.” That is, you’re not supposed to think. But what if all that you’re well-practiced in is writing on-demand? What learning is unfolding then?

I’m not suggesting that everyone follow my process, only that process is as important as products—though in our current product-driven age, it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s during the process, after all, that we get to practice and try out things as writers, whether that’s leads, structure, craft moves or even a process itself. We could, for instance, give students more than one strategy for getting words down on the page and then invite them to consider which worked best for for them, using this advice from Tom Romano as a guide.”Whatever helps you come to language, tap, exploit, ride. Whatever hinders you coming to language, avoid, shun, spurn.”

Of course, this means we’d need to value engaging with language as much as getting a job done. But I believe there are students out there who might actually find more joy in the blood-letting by listening to and following their words. And by finding more joy in the process, they’d learn more, which means that they’d come to those high-stakes moments with more that could unconsciously unfold.


Beyond All About Books (Part 2)

So how did the teachers and I help students write the wonderful creative nonfiction books I shared in Part 1 of Beyond All About Books? And how did we support those children who struggled with writing and English in general?

We began the way I start every writing unit, by reading the kind of text the students would be writing, in this case our mentor text Atlantic by G. Brian Karas. We’d return to the book many, many times before the unit was through, but the first time we shared it our goal was to help the students get a feel for the genre and think about how it was and wasn’t like other nonfiction they’d encountered.

To help them do that we initially asked each class to tell us what they already knew about nonfiction. Then we read a few pages of Atlantic, stopping frequently to consider how it was similar or different, using a Venn Diagram as a tool to hold on to the students’ thinking.

  Sample Venn Diagram comparing and contrasting types of nonfiction            

That part was not too difficult, nor was helping students grasp the idea of personification, which they took to quickly, ultimately personifying not just the country but rivers, mountains and even monuments like the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids. What was challenging, though, was getting them to be more descriptive–or, in one class’s words, to paint pictures in words. They had plenty of facts but none of the sensory details they’d noticed in the mentor text. And so, short of buying everyone plane tickets to Cairo or Beijing, I brought in pictures that would help them see what a place looked like, and in some cases allow them to infer what it might smell, sound, taste or feel like.

While searching for pictures, I was lucky enough to stumble on an amazing creative commons photography website called Pixdaus, where I found stunning pictures from various countries, like these of China:

In small groups, students studied the pictures, trying out ways to capture what they saw—or imagined what they might hear, smell, taste or feel—in words. Then they returned to the rug to share out what they’d come up with, projecting their picture with a document camera so that everyone could see. Using the details and language they’d come up with, I then modeled how to turn those into a page that sounded something like one of the pages we saw in our mentor text.

I am the green of bamboo forests and rice fields built into my hillsides like stairs.

I am the sparkling lights of cities filled with people, shops and tall buildings.

The sound of people making wishes for lanterns and the smell of good food cooking in woks is me, too.

For some of the children, this was enough to get them going—especially after we showed them how they could use the pictures in the books they had in their classrooms to help them get that sensory feel. But the most reluctant writers in the room needed more scaffolding. I gathered three or four of them at a time on the rug with white boards and markers, two pictures of animals and a syntactical sentence template I designed based on a pattern I noticed in both the mentor text and some of the writing I’d modeled:

(Name the animal you see)   (Say what they’re doing)  (Tell when and/or where).

The first one we did together as a group, with the children talking about what they saw and me writing the sentence down using the template. Then they looked at the second picture and once again spent some time talking to share the various ways they might describe what they were looking at. But this time I asked them to each use their white board, and with the syntax template visible, write their own sentences, using any of the words or details the group had shared. Here’s a sample of what they came up with:

Pandas make a big mess eating bamboo in my green bamboo forest.

Pandas lie on their backs to eat bamboo on the green floor of my forest.

Pandas use their big white tummies as plates in my bamboo forest.

This kind of scaffolding allowed every student in the room to feel successful and contribute to pages that ultimately looked like this:

 But what made me know that the unit was a success was when the students, on their own, noticed something in the mentor text we hadn’t discussed at all and used it as a model for the ending of their books:

 And mentoring myself to the students’ text, I’ll end this post this way:

Don’t forget me. I am Creative Nonfiction.

Giving Thanks

With Thanksgiving almost upon us, I’d like to take a moment between regular posts to give thanks to all those who, in these crazy, stressful times of new standards, more tests and more expectations, help me stay centered and sane.

I’m thankful that I have the privilege to work with teachers, administrators and other educators who somehow manage to steer through the craziness with humor and warmth and grace, never losing sight, in this data-obsessed age, of the hard-to-measure needs of the whole child.

And I’m thankful for the children who make the work worthwhile. There is Kyra, for instance, a sixth grade student, who gives me a hug each time she sees me in the hall because, spying her with a book one day, I asked her what she was reading, and we discovered that we shared a love of historical fiction and the amazing way writers can help us see ourselves in characters who live in different times, different cultures and different places.

And there’s Oscar, a third grader, who reminded me last week that thinking is more important than correctness when he shared the personal narrative he was writing about the time he’d been knocked down by a cow in India. “In India,” he wrote, “cows can go anywhere because people believe they are holy.” He’d put the sentence in quotation marks as if it was a line of dialogue, which his class was learning about, and when I asked if those were words he actually spoke aloud, he answered without hesitation, “Yes. Those are the words I’m speaking to my reader, because they might not know about the cows.”

Kyra, in turn, reminds me of something else I’m thankful for—what Stephen Greenblatt, this year’s National Book Award winner for nonfiction, described in his acceptance speech as the “magic of the written word”:

“. . . the power of books to cross boundaries, to speak to you impossibly across space and time and distance, to have someone long dead seem to be in the room with you.”

And Oscar reminds me of the importance of readers, which I’m also deeply thankful to have. Publishing a blog post often feels like tossing a message in a bottle out to sea, not knowing when and where, if ever, it might land and be found by a reader. If you’re reading these words, do know how very thankful I am that you’ve pulled them out from the cybersea and taken the time to read them. May they give you as much sustenance, hope and belief in the work we’ve been called on to do as your reading this gives me.

Now on to the turkey. I’ll be back next week with Beyond All About Books Part 2.

Beyond All About Books (Part 1)

We live in a golden age of children’s books, especially of engaging nonfiction picture books that manage to both inform and entertain children by borrowing techniques from poetry and fiction. Joanna Cole‘s Magic School Bus books, where the indomitable science teacher Miss Frizzle packs her students into a bus to explore everything from the human body to the earth’s substrata, are the classics of these genre-bending hybrids. But there are many others.

Bat Loves the Night by Nicola Davies is part of the Read and Wonder series, which uses various narrative techniques to reveal the behavior and life cycle of all sorts of animals.

Diary of a Worm is one of several hilarious and clever books by Doreen Cronin that offers readers all sorts of factual information in the guise of an insect- or bug-written diary.

Postcards from Pluto by Loreen Leedy teaches readers about the solar system through the postcards a group of space-traveling kids send back to their family and friends on Earth.

And Explorers News by Michael Johnstone is part of the History News series, which brings history alive and accessible through a newspaper format that even includes ads and gossip pages.

Students devour books like these, but oddly enough when we study nonfiction writing, we typically ask them to write All About books or the even more generic Report of Information, which can all too often lead to plagiarism, indiscriminate fact plucking and, in my pre-google-image-search days, the ransacking of National Geographics with scissors.

There’s much to be gained by writing All About books, especially in the way that using and manipulating nonfiction text features—e.g., tables of contents, headings and pictures with labels and/or captions—helps students understand how those features support your comprehension as a reader. But clearly that’s not the only way nonfiction writers convey information.

And so, with excitement and some trepidation, I embarked on a unit of creative nonfiction with the third grade teachers from a school in Brooklyn’s Chinatown that has a high percentage of English language learners in both ESL and bilingual classrooms. Many of the students had already written All About books before. And many had struggled with both the writing and the research component, with the teachers often having to spoon-feed information that the students couldn’t access on their own and sometimes pulling the writing out of them, word by painful word. We were curious to see if this kind of writing would allow the students to have a different relationship to both the material and writing, building their identity and sense of agency as more independent writers.

As our mentor text, we chose G. Brian Karas‘s book Atlantic, which uses poetic devices, including personification, to teach readers about the ocean. And we used the countries they were studying in their social studies curriculum for our content.

Karas’s book begins with a single un-nonfiction-like sentence:

I am the Atlantic Ocean.

But it goes on to convey nonfiction-like information in pages such as these:

Studying the text in depth allowed students to create whole class and individual creative nonfiction books on China, Egypt, Brazil and South Africa, with pages that looked like this:

They also studied the different layout of pages in the mentor text, such as these:

which inspired them to create pages like this:

 and this:

Who is the Sinai Mountain wearing orange dress when sun shines on it? I am the Sinai Mountain who looks so beautiful. And I have a important job from people who lives on me. My job is to help people to talk to gods. Also I am 7491 feet tall like a skyscraper.

Of course, the process wasn’t always as simple as looking at the mentor text then emulating what you noticed. Students needed lots of modeling and scaffolds to move past the kind of fact stringing they’d been used to from writing All About books. In Part 2, I’ll share some of the specific supports and scaffolds we offered students, especially those who struggled with English. Those supports ultimately allowed these third graders to more fully own both the content and the writing than their other nonfiction outings had. But we, as teachers, needed to be as creative as the text we were studying.

So What’s with the Prairie?

I love a good title. To Kill a Mockingbird, Where the Sidewalk Ends, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And so when I first thought of writing a blog, I thought about what I might call it.

At first I considered just using my name, which might make it easy to find. But blogging risked being self-centered enough without naming the blog after me. Then I entertained a riff on the old 3 R’s−reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic−with reflection replacing the ‘rithmetic as the third R in my teaching trinity. But that sounded clunky and too literal and also problematic as I remembered a few lines from an old song my grandmother used to sing: Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic/Taught to the tune of a hickory stick.

I didn’t want allusions to corporal punishment cropping up in anyone’s mind. So that one was out as well. But the process of vetting titles made had yielded something. It made me realize that what I really wanted was more in keeping with the titles I loved−something that was poetic and quirky, and even a bit enigmatic.

Of course, I had no idea what that was. But that’s when fate stepped in−fate in the form of a link on the online front page of The New York Times.

I hit the link and found myself transported to one of the newpaper’s blogs where I found a posting called “On Reverie” by a writer named Raphaël Enthoven. It was a dense and weighty piece, but there were phrases and sentences that took my breath away. Reverie, Enthoven writers, “is thought turned loose.” It’s “a search that begins by giving up and lets itself be dazzled . . . .” “It’s a transition, a passage where the heart, confounded, converts habit into astonishment.”

Reading those words turned my own thoughts loose, and I found myself recalling a poem I’d once read−something about clover and a bee and that word again, reverie. I wouldn’t quite call this a text-to-text connection; it was more like the kind of free association a mind makes when it has time to wander. But now that it had popped into my head I was curious. So I ran a search on google and, voilà, there it was: “To Make a Prairie” by Emily Dickinson, which now appears in the sidebar.

It’s one of those poems you don’t want to over analyze. You just want to let it dazzle you. And feeling dazzled, I also felt astonished. Here, it occurred to me, was my blog’s title: a phrase that was poetic, quirky and enigmatic, just like the titles I loved, and that seemed to speak to what we can make as writers and readers and thinkers when we surrender ourselves to what we notice−on the page, in the world, in our minds−and let that lead us somewhere unexpected, to a place both surprising and right.

And that felt like a good place to start.