CRAFT OF LITERARY 2.5 (Special Macro Edition): Featuring Raquel Hollingsworth – “Growing the .06%: Shifting the Classroom Focus from Creative Writing to Literacy”

The New York Times and The Huffington Post both recently cited surveys that claim at least 80% of Americans think they can or want to write a book (Dietrich and Epstein). However, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about .06% of the American working population are actually employed authors and writers. Just let that sink in.

For me, these numbers make a couple of things very clear. First, a large amount of people like the idea of writing a book; it’s encouraging to know that almost all of them have the desire to write, and that’s something nearly impossible to teach. That statistic gives me hope. The second thing to understand is that few writers actually make it happen, whether because of lack of skill or lack of perseverance, but this is where we may be able to do something about this discrepancy: our students certainly have the will to write, but they may not have the way. That deficit is one we can work with.

So considering the statistics, how do we successfully approach creative writing in the elementary and secondary classrooms, because without doubt, it must flourish there to stand a chance. How do we encourage and steer students who want to enter such a competitive field? What does such a classroom look like? It is definitely different than a strict English Language Arts classroom, but how? And it is undoubtedly different from the post-secondary workshop of more experienced writers.

And to complicate the matrix of obstacles, how do we fertilize young writers in poverty? This is especially unique to the elementary and secondary classroom. Unfortunately, most who fall victim to poverty will not see the workshop setting of college that is such an integral part of the field. So how can teachers foster and build the necessary skills and grit young writers need? That is the question.

The answer? Experience.

Most people say to write what you know. We’ve all heard the advice. The idea that our stories have more credibility, more believability, when we have experience on which to model our plots and characters, and they would be right, but the word encompasses so much more than just that.

I am a twenty-nine year old female English teacher from Mississippi. I graduated with my Masters from a Creative Writing program hailing from a dominantly agricultural university and a large number of my stories are from the point of view of an adolescent male – but none where he drives a tractor or sits in a classroom. None where he has what I would think of as an experience I’ve had. Yet, I still use my experience to inform my writing – in craft, in grammar, in tone, in character motivation. But so often we think of crafting plot when people say to write from experience, but in hindsight, that’s too limiting, especially considering the scope of successful writers and their stories.

We are only applying experience as half of the solution to the problem. So often, people think of experience as something that can be recreated in writing, and many would argue that primary and secondary students are too young to have the kind of experience that avoids cliched writing and leads to genuine stories. And in particular, students bound by poverty and its chains have even fewer opportunities to expand their experience.

But jumping to this conclusion ignores an important step in the process of building strong writers. Experience as a blueprint for writing is the second step to the problem. The first step is to create experience through reading. After all, good writers must first be good readers. For good writers, the two are undeniably connected.

Creating Experience Through Reading:

  1. The easiest and most accessible tool to grow the imagination is reading. Remember, our imagination grows from our experience. My creative writing thesis director at Mississippi State University, Michael Kardos, once asked me, “So you want to be a writer? What are you reading?” It is so critical to buy into the idea that writers are readers and visa versa. Good writing comes from reading good writing. Furthermore, there are only so many experiences we can actually have; after all, time is finite. Reading is a way to simulate new experiences and perhaps even reveal ones that students had and didn’t realize. Grace Lin has a TED Talk called “The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf” in which she argues that the texts readers/writers are exposed to should be texts in which the identifying characters are both symbols of mirrors (those who are like ourselves) and windows (those who are different from ourselves). Her argument supports the idea that reading can and should teach us about ourselves and others because it is only through getting to know people, all kinds of people, that we are able to write genuine stories that matter.
  2. Stop thinking of poverty as a boundary or a chain. In Mississippi, we are statistically one of the poorest states in the country, but we are also one of the wealthiest crops for successful writers born out of poverty: Oprah Winfrey, Muddy Waters, Ida B. Wells, Anne Moody, Jerry Clower, Alice Walker, Richard Wright, and even Rick Ross. Students should read their stories and learn about their lives. As teachers, creative writing or otherwise, we must encourage others to recognize poverty as a well from which experience springs. Poor kids do have experiences. The challenge is helping them realize that they have stories worth hearing, because so few think they do. The stigma around poverty has often defined it as something to overcome rather than something that creates beautiful life experience. That must change.
  3. Read the World! Yes, poverty is undoubtedly experience, but it also shouldn’t be a writer’s only experience. Students need to see the world. There is some credibility to the thought that travelers are cultured. And being exposed to culture creates experience. According to the National Household Travel Survey, nearly sixty-one percent of the American population does not travel more than fifty miles from their home in a year, and those who do travel usually take trips of 250 miles or less. Added to that, low-income families, especially those concentrated in metropolitan areas, take fewer extended distance trips than the rest of the population, somewhere from one to three annually. (“NPTS”) As indicated, sometimes travel isn’t possible; those students often have few opportunities to broaden their ideas and understandings of people and cultures largely because of poverty. But experience can be created. There are still ways to expose young writers to the world and help them gain diverse experience.
  4. Create a classroom community and bring the community into the classroom. This is two-fold. An important part of writing is sharing and revision. For young writers, sharing is hard (okay, maybe not as hard for this tech-social generation than some). But sharing real writing makes us vulnerable. Teachers need to build the kind of classroom that fosters a sense of community and safety that promotes trust, honesty, and acceptance, a classroom where a writer feels open to suggestion. The second part of this is to bring the community into the classroom. This obviously helps build a student’s experience, or at least his/her bank of experiences to pull from, even if they are not personal. Newbie writers sometimes need a word-bank of plots, so to speak. Introduce them to people in the community that they can relate to and who have stories to share. Young writers, and young people in general, need to see real people, their connections to the community, their struggles, their successes. They need to know there is someone on the other side of graduation who they can relate to.
  5. Take your students on field trips or invite guest speakers. I know what you are thinking. But I teach in a high poverty area; we don’t have money for field trips and I probably couldn’t get the permission forms back anyway. No worries. The field trips can come to you. Use tools at your disposal to take your students on journeys around the world. Periscope is a great tool to see the world! Start following teachers who can get their kids out of the classroom and want to share the fun. Ron Clark (Ron Clark Academy) recently had his students scope their field trip and share some of what they were seeing and learning in museums and around town. Invite people to speak – Those in your community, certainly – but those outside of it, too. Email authors and invite them to talk to your students. Several are happy to appear for free! You just have to ask.

Although reading and writing are presented separately here, it should be made clear that the two are inseparable and should always be taught in conjunction. One feeds the other and they should never be isolated. Therefore, as students are building reading experience, creating experience through writing is just as important to fostering weathered creatives. The process of writing should become one that is constantly reflective, fluid, and never-ending (but eventually reaching a publishable stage).

Creating Experience Through Writing:

  1. Once you have your students reading, they need to write about it! According to the Report of The National Commission on Writing, writing is the “neglected R” (“The Neglected ‘R’”). As experienced writers, we know that final products only come out of revisions which comes from writing, and writing, and writing some more. Students need time and opportunity to write inside and outside of the classroom. Suggest they set aside a predetermined amount of time each day to write or take this time in your class, and then stick to it.
  2. Have your writers experiment with different genres. So often, young writers think creative, personal writing means writing sappy love poems. Have them experiment with other text structures: blogs, emails, letters, memes, advertising slogans. So often, even we as teachers think of creative writing in terms of fictional literature. And while literary fiction is an important part of creative writing, remind students that creative writing doesn’t necessarily have to be narrative, and even when it is, narratives can be imagined or real. Creative nonfiction is a burgeoning new field. Encourage new writers to try it out.
  3. Write with your students! How can you teach writing if you never write? And why would a student of writing want to take advice from a teacher who doesn’t write? It just doesn’t make sense. In her book Write Beside Them, Penny Kittle argues that writing with your students is a critical step in the modeling process that students need to understand “thinking in its raw form” (7). At its core, writing with our students is showing, not telling – a skill we drill in writing classes. This essential step also helps students see how to go where the writing is going, to distinguish when the story should go one way, even when the thinking is going another. When we model drafting and revision, we teach students to be objective — essentially, how to write with a reader in mind – something impossible to understand when a writer isn’t reading.
  4. Create real pay-offs. Students want to know there is the possibility for success. We’ve already talked about success numbers, and logically, we know not all of our students will turn into John Grisham, but that’s not what I mean by a pay-off. Students who want to write need to know the reality of the publishing world, and that to seriously pursue a career as a creative literary writer will come with long hours and likely little financial revenue. But they still need to know the path to success, whether it’s paved in gold or not. Teach them the world of publishing. Write cover letters with them. Talk to editors. Have them submit real pieces for publication consideration. Several literary journals or websites are targeted to young writers. Check out Ricochet Magazine/Review (which strives to provide editorial feedback to all submissions), The Louisville Review, Phoebe: Journal of Literature and Art, Armchair/Shotgun, River Teeth, The Round, Stone Soup (8-13 yrs old, publications are compensated), Teenage Wasteland Review, The Blue Pencil Online, and Cuckoo Quarterly just to name a few.

The Center for Development and Learning argues that “reading, writing, speaking and listening … are all interrelated and affect one another. There is a fundamental and reciprocal relationship among oral language… written language, and reading” (“Language”). If we expect to grow young writers to be flourishing members of the creative writing community, we must stop teaching reading and writing in isolation and start encompassing literacy as a main goal, no matter the demographic of our classrooms. When we shift our thinking to encompass the malleability and vastness of literacy, we stand a chance of developing more experienced citizens, and thereby, more informed and genuine writers of such an important and influential field.

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Works Cited

Dietrich, William. “The Writer’s Odds of Success.” The Huffington Post. 04 Mar.2013.http://www.huffingtonpost.com/william-dietrich/the-writers-odds-of-succe_b_2806611.html.

Epstein, Joseph. “Think You Have a Book in You? Think Again.” The New York Times. 28 Sept. 2002. http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/28/opinion/think-you-have-a-book-in-you-think-again.html

Kittle, Penny. Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing. Heinemann, 2008.

“Language.” Center for Development and Learning. http://www.cdl.org/language/

Lin, Grace. “The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf.” TEDx 19 Mar. 2016. http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/The-Windows-and-Mirrors-of-Your

“The Neglected ‘R’: The Need for a Writing Revolution.” Report of The National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges. The College Board. 2003 Apr. http://www.collegeboard.com/prod_downloads/writingcom/neglectedr.pdf

“NPTS Brief.” U.S. Department of Transportation. 2006 Mar. http://nhts.ornl.gov/briefs/Long%20Distance%20Travel.pdf

“Occupational Outlook Handbook.” Bureau of Labor Statistics. United States Department of Labor. 17 Dec. 2015. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/writers-and-authors.htm

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ABOUT RAQUEL: Raquel Hollingsworth is a teacher of literature and composition at Puckett High School and Hinds Community College in Mississippi. She holds her MA in English with a concentration in creative writing from Mississippi State University where she also served as the associate editor of the Jabberwock Review. She is currently active with the National Writing Project and the College Ready Writer’s Program in Mississippi. You can connect with her on social media.

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Craft of Literary features flash essays on craft, CW pedagogy, and publishing by emerging and established writers. For more information, click here.

 

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