30 August 2007

How we learn to write

In class on Tuesday, one of my writing students who has been wrestling with her memoir had a breakthrough, and it made me ponder how we learn to write. There are the obvious things that we've all heard, of course: first of all we learn through writing, writing, writing. And through reading, reading, reading. I'm a firm believer in the long years of practice.

I know I learnt a lot about writing through workshopping and seeing other people's comments and their line edits. I know some writing teachers don't do line edits because they don't feel that they have the right to cross out somebody else's words, but I think it's an important way of showing how to improve the flow of words/information/narrative. The student is, of course, free to take your advice or not, but to me not line editing is a wasted opportunity to show the students (rather than tell them) how to improve. All very well to just write "awkward" next to a line, but some don't have the craft knowledge yet to know how to deal with that.

I'm a subscriber to the theory that our learning proceeds in a slow gentle curve that eventually plateaus out, until the day when another thing clicks and you jump up a level, up a straight cliff-face, onto another gentle incline curving up. And so we proceed in a series of curves and plateaus with the odd leaps that take us to the next level. And my student jumped one of those levels in class. Most years, at some point, at least one student will make such a leap, and it's a heartening thing for a teacher to see, because it means that all that we're saying and doing has at least had some effect. For me, it's moments like those that make teaching worthwhile. I love my students -- I find it inspiring to be among like-minded people, but these moments when you see such tangible evidence of improvement, teaching becomes something more than a job I enjoy doing.

A few years ago, I had two students who were close friends in my class: one was the most eager student I'd ever seen and so keen to improve her skills. She was always asking me what she could do to improve her work. She and her friend were pretty much on the same level and, as luck would have it, it was her friend that made the leap during class that year. The first girl was glad for her friend, but became increasingly frustrated at her own lack of progress. We can't will these jumps; they happen when we've assimilated some piece of knowledge, deconstructed and reconstructed it and come up with something new -- an insight, an epiphany, a light-bulb moment. I know at times I've experienced that frustration: knowing I've needed something more in my writing, but not quite what that thing is or how to get it. I had to tell my student not to lose heart, but to be patient. Patience does bring us improvements as long as we continue that essential practice. We all learn at different rates. Sometimes these leaps come through trying something different -- a completely different approach. For my student it was trying present tense instead of past. Present tense allowed her to relive the moment and so to capture it as if it were happening right there, right then. It doesn't mean her story necessarily has to stay in present tense, but for now it is helping her unlock the door to her own creativity. She's bubbling with excitement about it, and so am I.


Sherryl said...

"All very well to just write "awkward" next to a line, but some don't have the craft knowledge yet to know how to deal with that."
Ah see, here I disagree with you. In second year, I think they should be starting to work things out for themselves more, and I also think that unless you push them to, the next leap upwards will be slower. Self-discovery - working out how to fix something on your own - teaches you more than being shown.
I do write "awkward" next to sentences and expect the student to rewrite them without me telling them how to do it. You would probably say that the less able students can't do it on their own, and you may be right, but I do talk in class about sentence flow and construction, and we do close reading and close editing exercises. If they don't get it after that, writing long explanations or doing it for them isn't much use.
Yes, I'm hard, but I'm also always there to explain and assist if they don't understand. Often the question is - how hard to they really want to work? Many students resist the work in rewriting, which is a pity.

Tracey said...

I'm not saying I fix every problem. Sometimes I do write a comment like "awkward". What I'm talking about -- and I obviously didn't make this clear -- are teachers who never line edit. I know you actually do do some line edits because as a past student of yours I've had assignments back with sentences edited, and I've seen assignments you've given back to current students.

Self-discovery does teach you more, but some students -- even in second year -- aren't capable of doing it all on their own. I like to model some of these changes for them. This is how I learnt to edit, to self-correct my own work -- from seeing how someone else took my words and shaped them into something far more elegant than I could have then crafted on my own. I've learnt this both in workshopping groups, and from having accepted work edited by an editor. I think as long as I'm being published and editors are working with me to shape the final project, I shall continue to learn this.

But I get what you're saying about how for some I am doing the work for them -- work they may not have been as prepared to do on their own, but I honestly think that that's a small proportion of the class in any given year. Most want to improve -- if they didn't then why are they in the course in the first place? Maybe I'm just more optomistic than you? Maybe I'm just more deluded! lol