As the adults in a school that emphasizes writing, we are constantly discussing ways to teach our students to write well. We want them to be able, in writing, to critique the literature they are reading in their classes, to articulate their opinion on a historical or political issue, and to express their personality through a variety of creative pieces. Throughout their seven years at Bosque, our students will brainstorm and outline their thoughts, compose a first draft, meet with their teacher for feedback, revise the next draft, revise another draft, and finally turn in a piece about which they can feel proud; they will follow this process many, many times. As we hear from our alumni when they report back to us from college, they have learned to write very well.
Helping students get to a place where they feel good about their writing is a labor, but it’s a labor of love. We try to convey to them that writing can be difficult for everyone. We explain that writing does not come naturally for many of us, and when we sit down to write, we adults can face the same obstacles as they do. Some of our teachers write their own pieces for publication, some blog on a regular basis, and many write just for themselves. We try to help our students understand that we are all growing as writers. No one finds writing easy, and it’s not always fun; however, the feeling of pride that comes when one writes something that says exactly what one wishes to say and in the manner one wishes is incomparable.
A recent video interpretation of author Neil Gaiman’s advice on writing carries valuable lessons for our student writers. Watch here! A montage of scenes from movies about writers, like the Coen Brothers’ “Barton Fink,” accompanies Gaiman’s instructions and commentary for writers. As one would expect from someone as eclectic and prolific as Gaiman, his advice ranges far and wide; it’s humorous and meaningful, and it contains many fine nuggets of wisdom, such as one of his rules, “You have to write when you’re not inspired.” As Gaiman points out, writing takes practice, and if one waits for that singular moment of clarity or brilliance, one may produce a poem but not a novel. (Not that there's anything wrong with poetry!) As we try to tell our students, they will become better writers through the sheer act of writing, and they must be persistent and dogged. The perfect sentence or the brilliant paragraph can only come through perseverance.
In this video, Gaiman discusses people in Great Britain who build stone walls by patiently piling rock upon rock. It is only when the final stone is laid on the top that one can look back and realize all of the work that went into producing the wall. Similarly, writing is layering word upon word, sentence after sentence, and it’s only when s/he reaches the end that the writer can appreciate the effort that produced the final product.
Gaiman’s final advice to his listeners is, “Tell your story” and “Tell the stories only you can tell.” In order to do this, we should read widely and continually, and he especially recommends that we read beyond the genres that we prefer or in which we wish to write. We need to read outside of our comfort zone, so we don’t merely emulate similar authors and so we also have a broader repertoire from which we can choose. Then, when we sit down to write, we can do so from our own perspective, and we can tell a story that is uniquely our own.
While writing can be and often is hard work, we want our students to experience the joy of sharing their thoughts and feelings in a written format. Also, we hope they experience the faith in the future that writing presupposes. As the Canadian author Margaret Atwood once said, “Every writer is inherently optimistic no matter how pessimistic the content they may produce because writing is in itself an optimistic act. Just think about it. You're assuming a future reader, which is a big leap. Every time you write something down you're assuming that somebody's going to read it at the other end, so you're also assuming the possibility of human communication and you're assuming that that's a good thing.” Writing can help our students realize that even in the darkest of times, there is still hope for a better world, and for that reason alone, they need to keep on writing.