Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Bosque Students and Writing

Again and again this year, my team teacher and I have looked at each other after grading a stack of papers from our students and exclaimed, “Man, these kids can write!”  While we’re not necessarily surprised by this fact, we are heartened by it.  As a result, we assign them more and more papers, varying the types of writing we ask them to do. In the past month alone, they have demonstrated their comprehension of the conflict in Syria, NSA snooping, religious freedom in America, and Samuel Huntington’s controversial 1993 Foreign Affairs article, “The Clash of Civilizations,” through analytical essays and narrative responses.   We know that our colleagues are also assigning our students many essays; consequently, they are writing a great deal.

Among the many reaffirming remarks we hear from Bosque alumni who are in college is how well prepared they are for the challenge of college writing, particularly in comparison to their peers.  So often they say things like, “My roommates and friends freak out when they have to write a five to ten page paper. I tell them that I’ve been doing that and much more for years. That was only the first part of my thesis!”

By the time our students graduate, they know how to write well, and we hope they understand that writing is not merely reflective of thinking; it is also generative of thought.  I remembered this as I read a recent article, linked here, based on a quotation by the 18th century English thinker and writer, Dr. Samuel Johnson: “Composition is, for the most part, an effort of slow diligence and steady perseverance, to which the mind is dragged by necessity or resolution, and from which the attention is every moment starting to more delightful amusements.”

This article contains quotations from many writers that all seem to lead to the same idea, which  we should make clear to our students. While many of us may want to wait for that stunning moment of inspiration to suddenly appear, it will only come if we’re willing to engage in the hard and sometimes painful work of writing. Sometimes just sitting down and beginning to write will provide the impetus for the creative juices to stir; sometimes it may take longer, but we have to start writing.

In addition, perhaps one of the most important lessons we can impart to them is that good writing comes from good reading.  The fantasy and horror author H.P. Lovecraft, one of my son’s favorite authors, once said, “All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading, and the learner must never cease to hold this phase uppermost. In many cases, the usage of good authors will be found a more effective guide than any amount of precept. A page of Addison or of Irving will teach more of style than a whole manual of rules, whilst a story of Poe’s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook.”

Very often, a parent will ask me, “How can I help my child become a better writer? “ Although my response may seem simplistic, I do think there is merit when I say, “Have her read more.”   While reading alone may not create a literary genius and will not necessarily cure all of a student’s writing problems, it will expose young writers to models of good writing that they then can internalize by osmosis.  The more one reads, the more one appreciates good writing. This may also require students to read some bad writing, so they can know the difference between quality and dross.  In the same way a chef needs to eat all kinds of food before he can create his own recipes, a writer needs to taste a variety of styles so she can a find voice that is uniquely her own.  This can only come from reading widely and then sitting down and writing.

Ultimately, we want our students to be lovers of words, sentences, and paragraphs.  We want them to be comfortable expressing their own thoughts and emotions. This can only come through voracious reading and hours of writing.  Hopefully, they will reach that point where they can sit back, look at one of their essays or creative pieces, and say like their teachers, “Man, that is good!” In the process, they will also learn the wisdom of what Nathaniel Hawthorne once said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”