Monday, 9 February 2009

LATE, writing: more thoughts

I got the impression at Saturday’s LATE meeting (see yesterday’s posting), as I have done consistently since I started teaching in the 60s, that few English teachers, let alone other teachers, have a coherent model of writing: what it is, what it’s for, how it’s done and how it’s learned. (That’s the title of the course all teachers should take – but who knows enough to teach it?)

Yet when I think about it I can see every reason for our confusion: it’s such a complex business that it’s no wonder we find it difficult to get a theory clear enough and subtle enough to base a sound pedagogy on. (There are clear theories; it’s just that they’re wrong – or rather, usually, over-simple.) Writing seems always to be in an indeterminate zone, never one thing or the other. It typically involves a tension and a complex interaction between two states.

These are what strike me as some of the theoretical issues:

Is writing a sort of saying or a sort of making? Is that essay I've written me speaking? Yes and no. Could you take the sentences as my assertions? I suppose on the whole, yes; unless I've actively dissembled in my writing, the text more or less represents the sort of thing I would say and mean. But at the same time the text isn’t me speaking. Suppose I drop the essay in the street and someone picks it up hours later and reads it: what she reads is what the text says; whatever I may have intended, the text makes its points -- its points -- advances its argument, gets its logic right or wrong. When I was writing it I was doing a sort of speaking; but I was also making something that was going to speak for itself.

Is writing thinking or making? From one point of view it’s thinking/speaking that leaves a visible trace , a graphical realisation of those abstract entities, words and sentences. At another level I work on my writing as maker, not speaker, rearranging the words and phrases, inserting, deleting, rewording or radically reshaping – things I could never do in unaided thought or if in speech out loud.

But it’s not a simple business of first get it down (generate the trace), then shape it as an artefact. That’s where the two-stage model, ‘Draft – Revise’ , fails to capture what goes on, because already, while we’re still in the middle of getting it down, what we’ve written talks back to us and suggests what we might say/write/mean next; or it seems wrong and induces a rethink and fresh try – at the last word or phrase or at the structure of a whole chunk or the whole piece. Our output constantly re-enters the process as input in a constant feedback loop. We oscillate – sometimes every few seconds, sometimes at longer intervals -- between being writers and readers, generators and tinkerers, thinkers and critics.

Another complexity is in the thinking aspect – the coming up with the ideas. We tell kids, ‘Think!’ – but it isn’t a straightforwardly deliberate process that you can will. An aspect of writing that makes it particularly hard to handle, for the student and the teacher, is that it’s not to be delivered simply by effort (‘Try harder!’) but is dependent on having thoughts come to you. Either they come or they don’t is often our experience.

Thoughts come to me and words come to me (when they do). I'm writing a sentence and a phrase suggests itself. It doesn’t occur as the answer to my prayer for words that will express an idea I have, but as words that bring their own ideas with them, ones I hadn’t thought of. I write the phrase down, provisionally. Is this that I've written down something I'm prepared to say? It’s a phrase that ‘works’ within the context, but do I want to buy into it, stamp it with my imprimatur (whatever that is)? Typically, I think, I don’t decide one way or the other – I'm not sure -- but I let it stand: I like it, I like the idea it brings with it, I like the way it goes so I leave it to do the talking. And if someone were to ask me, ‘But do you mean what you’ve put down there?’ I wouldn’t be sure how to answer. 'I don't know -- I'd never thought of it.' Or perhaps, 'Before I didn’t, before I came up with it, because it had never entered my head, but now I think I do. Now it’s come up, yes, I suppose I do think it.'

I.e. there's a sense in which the writing does itself, or perhaps that when we write we're in a partnership with something else that's got its own ideas.

It’s not a matter of either waiting passively for thought to happen (inspiration) or by an act of will thinking, making thoughts. As we get better at writing we get better at having thoughts come. It’s as if our general intention for the piece, a broad sense of direction, clears a path or indicates a runway on which thoughts can come in. We exploit associations and our familiarity with the sort of thoughts that go with a topic. (Genre comes in here, but that's another story.)

So part of writing is not having our intentions too set and, rather, being prepared to abandon – provisionally at least – the direction we started out in, so as to allow free play to associations and triggerings; and then being prepared to strike out in the unanticipated direction that’s offered itself and that promises to be more fruitful than the one we’d planned.

As for that ‘provisionally’, it’s a skill we learn, keeping an original intention on hold in the background without losing it while we attend to something different that’s arisen that may possibly be relevant but we won’t know until we’ve given it a run.

Working to a tight plan or a ‘scaffold’ or outline or genre frame would seem to preclude experience of that sort of coaxed inspiration and of the fluidity of writing in the course of shaping. Learning to write probably depends on being in charge of the whole piece on your own. Some ‘help’ can close off options. It may enable a product of some sort to be produced, a page of writing in an approved shape, but at the price of shutting out that aspect of the writing process that’s potentially most powerful – that its provisional crystallisation as text allows the mind to do things it couldn’t without this technology; to shape thoughts into structures that are more complex and more tightly organised than unaided cogitation could manage. Writing enables the mind to take off, to be liberated, to take its time, to make thought hang together, to bring in more stuff, to ring more bells. The pay-off is that we're able to produce chunks of continuous discourse more crafted, more coherent, more varied, more interesting, more remarkable than anything we could normally produce in unscripted speech. Our written voice can make people sit up in a way that our ordinary speech can’t – as Steve Martin eloquently pointed out in his keynote on Saturday.

The sort of writing know-how I've been referring to must come for the most part through practice – by which I mean experience of the real thing, copious practice at extended continuous writing in which the writer is in sole charge.

Steve Martin was right about this, as about much else. A large part of English lessons – a third, a half? (this is me, not him) – should be devoted to this (I know: ok, not starting tomorrow -- but some day, when sanity is restored). The amount that students are able and willing to do at home can obviously modify that: it will vary with circumstances. In a 1985 report on writing at three age-levels across schools in one Canadian school board, Pringle and Freedman concluded that by age 10 or 11 pupils should be producing ‘many pages’ of extended continuous writing each week. At the LATE meeting people were saying that writing was dominated by very short bits with very little experience of longer pieces. This had always been the case with chemistry but it’s shocking to find it so in English.

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