Every semester I begin my writing classes by asking students to write a one page introduction letter that discusses their feelings and experiences surrounding writing. A shot of the assignment and a link to a pdf are right here: The Story of Your Writing
From these I tend to find my classes to be made up of the following:
- A few students who love writing unconditionally
- A few students who hate writing equally as fiercely
- A fair number of students who mention being ok with some types of writing but not others
- At least as many students who say that they feel uncomfortable when they write
- And a majority of students who shrug their shoulders at writing, but who, when pressed, admit that they often don’t really like doing it.
I start with this assignment because knowing how each individual student feels about writing helps me to tailor my approaches to them throughout the semester, but one additional side benefit is that every year this assignment serves as a good reminder at the start of the year that most of the students who walk in on the first day class don’t particularly care for writing.
But why is this? If we are to have any hope of getting students to grow significantly as writers, we need to help them move past indifference or animus towards putting words on a page. In terms of getting to the bottom of why so many students don’t like writing, I think it best for those of us who love writing (I am assuming you fit that category, if you are reading this) to think about the somewhat mixed relationship we can have with writing too. For example, think about the times in life when we often turn away from writing. Think about the hours spent in guilty procrastination of a piece of writing, the times where little dopamine dumps from checking social media or watching a clip on Youtube distracted you while writing, and whether when it is time to relax with a beverage of your choice, if you reach for a pen to continue writing, or for a good book or remote control.
The fact of the matter is that nearly all of us, word-lovers and veteran wordsmiths included, are often wary of writing because it is really hard work. In MRIs we can now see that when writers begin composing in earnest, nearly every part of the brain, ranging from the ancient lizard brain of the amygdala to the modern super processor in the frontal lobe, lights up like Tokyo at night.
Further, from start to finish, the working memories of those engaged in serious composition are generally so maxed out that even the smallest outside interruptions can feel disorienting.
The analogy that I use with my students is that writing is like sprinting. When one sprints, all physical resources are suddenly marshaled to move as quick as possible. The body very sagely views this massive use of resources as a potential threat to its energy reserves, which is why sprinting hurts. If you are being chased by a lion, that pain matters less than getting away, so you will keep going until you are safe. But if you are in no real harm, the pain is a not so subtle nudge to stop flippantly burning through your energy.
The same basic principle is at play when it comes to writing. If we truly engaged with a piece of writing, all or nearly all of our attention and cognition for a long period of time will be needed, and like our body, our brain holds deep reservations concerning anything that monopolizes our mental resources. Thus, like sprinting, our minds regularly tell us that this is not fun when we write and tempt us to stop in favor of something less intense.
Veteran writers, like veteran runners, usually have the ability to push through much of the difficulty and discomfort of writing and shut out distractions. I’ve found that a few students come pre-loaded with this ability, and they are generally the ones who profess love for writing because they can look past its difficulty and see what an incredible thing it is. Unfortunately, the rest of the students have their vision so obscured by how hard and unpleasant writing can be that seeing what makes it fun, invigorating, and essential can be nearly impossible.
The good news is that there are specific approaches that I will discuss in my next post that can help students to see past the fact that writing is difficult to why it is something they could and probably should learn to love. Trying to get students to make this shift is well worth the time, as it is not hyperbole to say that our ability to teach a student writing only really takes off once a student opens up and decides to let the written word in.