In today’s writing class, I took some mental notes as my students presented touchstones moments in their writing development. They’d discussed these in small groups first, then I’d ask them to create a collective visual that combined those moments in some way. (Yeah, I did that thing that teachers do and intentionally gave them very vague instructions.)
You can see their visualizations above, and you can also read about their individual moments once I add the URLs to their personal blogs to our class website. Here are some things I noticed as I listened this morning and as I look back at their drawings now:
- We think in story. (At least English majors do.) I just asked my students to share their touchstone moments. That could have just been an image, right? Nope, it was a story. And when it comes to our stories..
- We like a good Western. Not of the Wild West variety, though in the first image on the bottom row you can see a pig and a cow (I think? Sorry if I’m wrong, Savannah!). By that, I mean that we like our stories to have a narrative arc in the Western tradition, as in a beginning, a middle, and an end–a little exposition, an inciting incident, a climax, then a resolution. We prefer the hero(ine)’s journey. Look at all those roads on the posters, most of them leading upwards or at least to a sun-filled view (image on top left). It may be rough out there, but we make it to the top!
- Back to that inciting incident, though: it’s not always positive. While many in the class had fond memories of a story or poem that won special recognition (e.g., notice the “Accolades” book in to the top row, far right), others remembered more traumatic moments, such as getting one’s writing trashed by a classmate in a peer writing group; not winning the writing contest, though victory seemed like a foregone conclusion; losing one’s way in the wilderness (witness the winding path in the image on the top left); losing a friend who moved away; finding oneself imprisoned by seemingly immutable organizational structures like the analytical essay, 5 paragraphs long, of course (see jailhouse bars in the bottom row).
- On the other hand, writing can bind us together. And it doesn’t take much–the off-hand comment by the teacher outside the classroom doorway about how much she liked that paper you turned in (image on bottom row at right); the family members who published your very own book; the friend who wrote Sonic the Hedgehog fan fiction with you so you could still be together, even after she moved far away.
- We mostly associate writing with school. Even if it’s not completely evident in the images above, it was the case in the presentations that many students associated their triumphs and trauma with an assignment or a specific class or a really great teacher who turned their ideas around about their potential as writers.
- And we mostly find our way. Again, at least English majors seem to. On that last point, though, it’s made me wonder: This is a junior-level class, so have only the strong survived? What about the kid who never won the contest? Or the one who hated 5-paragraph essays so much she dropped writing like a hot rock the minute she got the right score on the AP exam that would exempt her from College Comp.? Or the one whose family never really noticed what he wrote, much less paid to have it published in a book? What happened (or didn’t happen) there?
And that brings me to the final item in my title–trust. When our writing works, when it really sings, we have a sense of that, usually because someone along the way tells us so–maybe a family member, a friend, or a teacher–and we start to believe it and to trust ourselves. Maybe that trust is only temporary. Probably it is. But if we stick with the writing long enough and enough people tell us that we should, we eventually come to believe in our own sense of direction as writers. So we keep writing our way through the wilderness (and believe me, there is a wilderness, and it can be very, very dark) until we see the sun.
(Apparently, I like a good Western, too.)
As I said in an earlier post and as I told my students in this class on the first day, writing is my very favorite thing to teach. But what I probably should have said is that my very favorite thing is to teach writing to people who are becoming writers. These stories remind me what a responsibility and privilege it is to do that. What about you?