Thursday, March 13, 2014

On Being a Writer

What does it mean to want to be a writer?
Is that something we "want to be" or something we are, in various stages or progressions, because we engage in the act of communicating through written language?

I am a writer. It isn't a question of whether I want to be or not. I am a writer.

I have been a writer for as long as I can remember. Reflecting on my early memories of writing sent me digging for artifacts from the past. I hadn't been through my collection of elementary school keepsakes in a while, but I was 
confident I would find what I was looking for: my very first book. My first 
A nurse?
That dream didn't last long!
"published" work was entitled "Renting a V.C.R." (Copyright 1984). The book 
cover was a late 70's style wallpaper glued to a sturdy piece of cardboard. The 
binding was reinforced with red tape. Mrs. Palmer, my kindergarten teacher typed my words, and I illustrated the story. And, best of all, my book included an About the Author page, penned in Mrs. Palmer's very neat handwriting. 

Without a doubt, it was a treasure.

The treasure of this book—even though I was unaware then—is that it was a gateway. It was a positive experience with sharing my real story with classmates, my teacher, and my parents. They told me: I had something to say. They showed me: I was a writer. And so my identity as a writer began.

In first grade, I wrote simple books. The first grade version of me progressed from word books (written for my baby brother) to longer stories that began to resemble the familiar bed-to-bed tales. My illustrations, while not deserving of the Caldecott Honor, helped to tell the stories in half-page construction paper booklets, too.

In fourth grade, I was a playwright. Or, I was determined to be, writing pages and pages of play scripts and enlisting the help of any friends I could coerce into joining me (which wasn't many, incidentally). I spent hours after hours in the musty basement on a folding chair at the old card table dreaming up dialogue and stage directions.

In my moody middle school years, I discovered an outlet through poetry. Some of my poems were corny and contrived, but others were filled with emotion and became a vessel for expressing inner conflicts, the start of self-discovery.

I didn't write as freely in high school, nor did I write creatively in college. My writing life was far more academic in focus. In some respects, as writing became more prescribed and forced, I did less of my own writing and more to satisfy expectations. My choice to write went dormant for a spell. And, in fact, until recently, I could count on one hand the number of writing projects I've engaged in by choice.

There isn’t a good excuse for why I wasn’t writing. Time, I suppose is the greatest factor. I wasn’t taking time or making time. I engaged in plenty of rich, creative thinking and philosophical dialogue. I constructed aloud and elaborated on ideas excitedly. Yet, that deep thinking is ghost-like, with so many seedlings of writing that have slipped away because they were not captured or recorded.

Sometimes circumstances force development.

In time, two things happened. First, I grew tired of making examples or producing stilted models of writing to share with students in my writing workshops. A writer though I was, I was faking it when leading the writers in my classroom with pristine writer’s notebook pages and snippets of writing I had composed specifically for the lesson but in which I had little genuine investment.

Second, my professional setting and peer group changed. My closest colleagues—those upon whom I depended to bat ideas around or to engage in healthy pedagogical debate—left my school community for different reasons. New relationships are growing and must be built, of course, but I have naturally gravitated back to the paper as a thinking partner. I have turned increasingly introspective and often explore my ideas and beliefs in the pages of my notebooks. I write to engage my mind in possibility, to dream up a new great plan, or to give time and attention to thoughts that otherwise go unattended. I need a way to capture, develop, and refine my thinking, and I can depend on my Sharpie pens and my notebook to be there.
Melissa, Writer, age 5

Today, I am a writer. 

I have always been a writer. I see that, having dusted myself off, reacquainting myself, and allowing myself time to spend writing. My goals need to be developed and may even change. My audience, subject, and purpose may vary. But my identity as a writer does not.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Developing Identity: Vulnerability and Value (Children Want to Write #2)

[As a member of my school’s Leadership Team, I have volunteered to facilitate a monthly book study using the text Children Want to Write: Donald Graves and the Revolution in Children’s Writing. This is one entry in an intended series devoted to reflections, musings, and captured wisdom that results from our book study readings and discussions. See how it started here.]

The DVD that accompanies Children Want to Write is a treasure trove of additional fodder for reflective teachers. When introducing the reading assignment for our session (chapters 1 & 2), I prepared colleagues to expect the featured video for chapter 2, “The Mother of the Story,” to be part of our discussion. Together we viewed the clip in which one young writer, Debbie, articulates what writing is really about—for her.

During the group viewing, I asked colleagues to watch the video specifically to identify characteristics of this student that made her a writer. The interview Lucy Calkins conducts with Debbie emphasizes her identity as a writer. She describes her ownership of her writing, expressing how she is in control of the choices and decisions related to her work. While she honors the influence of others in her writing community, she knows she is ultimately the decision-maker, or “the mother of the story.”

In the resulting conversation, my colleagues and I reflected on the conditions that are currently in place in our writing workshops, and we dreamed aloud of what we would like to see and do in order to promote such self-awareness and high levels of reflection in our own students. We want to nurture our students towards the development of their own writing identities.

Debbie’s confidence in describing herself as a writer and her relationship to her writing is evidence of the active role she assumed as a writer. She showed deep investment in her writing and owned her ideas. She was comfortable taking chances, and changing her mind or standing her ground. She recognized an intrinsic reward in writing. 

Comparatively, I frequently encounter students who are more passive, operating from a position in which writing is something done “to” them, given as an assignment or a consequence. Risk taking weighs them down, and fear of having nothing "good enough" to write paralyzes them from the start. The act of writing is not yet internalized and ownership of the writing is not yet actualized. 

How do we make the shift?
I take hints at ways to begin from Graves’ wisdom about writers and vulnerability and value.

Students need opportunities to see themselves in the role of a writer. I need to empower them with words and wide-reading experiences, and I need to gift them with time. I can instill this idea by calling them writers, and reminding them they are. I can involve them in partnerships with other writers, including myself, stretching their potential as developing writers. I can create ways to share and celebrate their writing.
Students need to experience that they have ideas worth thinking, exploring, and sharing through writing. I need to validate that their ideas have worth. I can cheerlead their efforts, honor the personal nature of their work, and recognize the risk that is involved. I can help students increase their comfort with vulnerability by being a vulnerable writer myself.
Students need to find acceptance, through discovery, that writing is often imperfect, sometimes unfinished, unpublished, and/or private and not shared with a wider audience. I can de-emphasize final drafts and publishing. I can model more exploratory writing and be an example of a writer who doesn’t perfect every piece I begin. I can to broaden students’ perception of what writing is.

Debbie was a writer. By accepting vulnerability and internalizing the value of her written work, Debbie developed her identity as a writer. With some intentional choices to promote these habits in our writing workshop, so can our students.