In the "First Letter" in his short book Teachers as Cultural Workers, Paulo Freire states, "Nobody can write who never writes."
I got my start with open mics at a place called The High Dive in McAllen, TX, run by a huge supporter of the arts and who put his money where his mouth is, Noe Hinojosa. Noe used to help the regional visual artists by displaying their work on every wall of his coffee joint (floor to ceiling, literally), making it available for purchase. He also held weekly readings, normally open mics on a Friday night. This is where I heard Jan Seale (former Texas poet Laureate) and Carmen Tafolla (San Antonio's poet laureate). He also used to sell a bottomless cup of pretty good coffee. Which I always took advantage of.
I recall a few of the regulars who shared their work with the audiences. One of them came and read the same poems every Friday, accompanied by the same set ups for each of the pieces. This guy was a great performer, and self-depricating, too, which made it easier to like his on-stage persona.
I recall that at some point in our friendship he asked me to look over his poetry, to offer critique, which I was happy to do. After all, this is one of the ways writers get better at the craft: we read one another's work, tell one another what's working and what's not, let the critique stew in our heads for a while, then get to my favorite part of writing--the revision, or the re-envisioning of a piece of writing. Sometimes a dramatic experience. Other times traumatic. On a few occasions, both.
So despite knowing his work intimately from hearing it time and time again at the readings, I read the work off the page and came up with some suggestions. I forget what I offered him in terms of advice, but one thing I do remember suggesting that he read the work of other poets, those writing in a similar vein (and I remember it solely based on his response, which I wasn't expecting).
This was his answer (and I paraphrase): I'd rather not read the work of others. I don't want to be influenced by their work.
I come from a wholly different school of writing, I guess, but this struck me as the response of a guy who wasn't serious about the craft. I feel very strongly that in order for my craft to improve I've got to read and read and read. Find out from what's been and what's being published what I can be doing with my poems and stories and essays. It's a worthwhile endeavor, and humbling. To take these folks on as mentors, as teachers, as primers. I mean, I'm a moron when it comes to writing--I know it about myself. I don't know it all. I get it. And I also get that for me to keep learning about my craft I've got to study it, and sometimes this learning--strike that--often, this learning takes the form of reading the work of others. I am not so advanced (even with 7-8 titles under my belt) that I cannot find tons of lessons in the books that I read. Whatever those lessons are.
Anyhow, back to Freire: nobody can write who doesn't write: yes, most certainly, he's correct. And if part of learning to write is reading (and it is), then I would suggest that nobody can write who doesn't read.
4. For the duration, teach creative writing and nothing else. Would-be writers need to know how to live and breathe like authors, down to the language authors use when talking the business of writing. Apprentice writers will then be able to talk about their own and others’ writing as fellow-journeymen. Not just the names of things, but the language of hope and desire, of rejection, and of thick skin. When my father-in-law, a friend, and I began work on updating the exterior walls on the farmhouse in Sweden, we fell into a daily routine, starting with unloading the tools required for the job. It was a quiet time, a time for us to focus on the work to come, to stretch out extension cords, to tote planks of wood from stacks behind the farmhouse to where we’d use them. When we got going, there was talk about construction sites my father-in-law had worked a while ago, a quick lesson on the difference between something being flush or plumb, and the chatter that goes with hammering and sawing. It was my father-in-law usually who set up the day’s schedule and doled out the instructions, checking on my and my friend’s work. (At one point, he took his carpenter’s pencil and where I’d missed the nail and left an indention on the wood he scribbled the date, drew an arrow pointing to it, and wrote my name next to it, a sort of constructive criticism in the guise of poking fun.) There’s also the banging and buzzing sounds that were part of the language. I didn’t magically transform into master carpenter based on this one experience swinging a hammer, but I was exposed to the craft long enough to decide it is not a language I want to speak for the rest of my life. More to the point: without this extended, purposeful, and guided experience I would not have had the choice either way. I would not have known to know there was such a choice for me to be responsible for making. Back in high school, when I was asked to write those two short stories, we didn’t have this protracted time. We simply wrote another kind of essay or paper for its own sake, and a grade. Neither of which caused me to think of myself even remotely as the person behind the story. Writing a task to perform, a chore to complete.
5. Young writers should read primer texts. These are not the mentor texts mentioned above. Nor should they be confused with how-to manuals. These are novels, stories, or poems about a craft, the author putting a skill on display. In writing about a character performing a skill well or poorly, the master-craftsman (the author, that is) is sharing with us his or her philosophy on writing. Read about the care a baseball player takes when practicing his swing in Carl Deuker’s Heart of a Champion, or the obsessive free throw shooting by Sticky in Matt de la Peña’s Ball Don’t Lie. These writers aren’t merely describing an action in a story. They are inviting us (usually subconsciously) to view courtside their different approaches to crafting. Fiction writer Dagoberto Gilb teaches about the craft of writing in “Al, In Phoenix” which is about Al, a grease monkey, who serves as the writer’s master-craftsmen in the story. In this piece found in the collection The Magic of Blood, when the narrator’s car breaks down, he has it towed to Al’s station. Not one to be hurried by the impatient narrator who wants an estimate on how long the job will take, Al insists, “Everything takes time” (79). He is methodical, and he won’t let a job beat him. He cranks the engine to listen for potential problems, makes a diagnosis, raises the car on the lift, tears apart the drive shaft, tinkers, puts everything back together, lowers the car, turns the ignition, listens, lifts, tinkers some more, until he gets it right, at which point, long after closing up shop, Al “revs the engine, shifts the gears several more times, then stops. He pops the hood. He checks things. He checks the battery, puts in water, greases the clamps, then closes the hood” (90). Doesn’t that read so much like an author’s daily strive? From earliest draft of a poem or story clear through to the major revisions to minor ones and on to the final edits? Isn’t this exactly what writing a story should look like? The master craftsman isn’t done in one go, and when he thinks he’s finished, he goes back to the draft and tinkers some more.
6. Get them writing, plain and simple. Writers write, says Delblanco. Don’t ask students to waste words and time with exercises that do not go directly to teaching them about the craft, though. You could give students various topics to write on, a way to collect multiple ideas to choose from, but once they select a subject for a poem or story, let them have at it, and in the process, write, revise, revise some more, and revise even more. Teach the craft in the context of actual writing.
7. Keep them reading both mentor and primer texts. Then insist that they talk about what they’re writing in terms of what they’re learning from the mentor and primer texts. Have them identify point of view in a story, for instance, and then discuss the possible reasons an author would have for choosing first-person reporter/present tense rather than third-person limited/past tense, and what the implications are to such a decision. Then have them do likewise with their own writing. Make them explain or even justify why the one perspective and not another is the best for this story. Why to use the villanelle for this one poem rather than free-verse. Etc. They will talk like writers because they are chest deep in it. It’s only natural.
8. Have them workshop a piece. Each writer-in-training submits a work to be analyzed by the whole. The group will offer up constructive criticism: what’s working and what’s not, but just as importantly, the why behind their opinions. Have them steer clear of offering up solutions during workshop, however. They’re expected to merely point out weaknesses and then it’s the author’s responsibility to do with this information what he will. While working on my father-in-law’s farmhouse, we used nails to secure a board to the house, but we used long screws to finish the work. On a 20 to 25 foot ladder and an electric drill in hand, I would work the screw in at a ninety degree angle. Which was fine if I wanted the house to last a short 100 years more. But if I wanted my work to last longer, my father-in-law insisted, I should tilt the screw a few degrees upwards so that the screw would bite more definitely into the wood. Here was a fellow worker looking at a beginner’s, noticing where the work could improve, suggesting so, and explaining the reason for making the change. He never took over the drill, he just showed me a better and more effective way.
9. Teach them about the revision process. This is where the real writing happens. We are not all first-draft-last-draft writers like Rylant (18). Carver writes that he likes “to mess around with my stories. I’d rather tinker with a story after writing it, and then tinker some more, changing this, changing that, than have to write the story in the first place….Rewriting for me is not a chore—it’s something I like to do” (182). He adds, “Maybe I revise because it gradually takes me into the heart of what the story is about. I have to keep trying to see if I can find that out. It’s a process more than a fixed position” (183). Novelist Ernest J. Gaines compares this part of the process to carving on a block of wood. He whittles away at the block, then shows it to a woman who serves as a sort of editor. After studying his most recent work, “she would say yes, but not quite yet. And sometimes I would get angry with her, and I would ask her what the hell she knew about it,” but after some careful consideration, “I would go back and work again. I don’t know the number of hours or days or weeks or even months that I would put into one carving….” (42). All this hard work for one purpose: to tell the best story a writer can. So students may thrive on revision like Carver, or detest it like Gaines; one way or the other, it is at this stage where the craftsmen show their mettle. Like Al the mechanic, writers will refuse to let the work beat them down. A final note on revision: if it’s going to do the piece of writing any good, revision should be dramatic and traumatic.
10. Be the editor. Once apprentices are convinced that this is a line of work they want to pursue, no amount of criticism or rejection will deter them from reaching the level of master-craftsman. After all, an editor’s job is to help guide the writer and to help shape that unintelligible block of words into something legible. Shying away from being critical does a disservice to writer and work. If they are any good at it, editors will not rest either until they and writers have the best product possible to share with their readership. A great story becomes a shared labor.
Perhaps if my junior high science or history teacher had known of my early interest in archeology, she could have helped guide me in that direction, allowed me to get a feel for the work of digging up old stuff. Perchance today I would be working on an archeological site, dusty and sun-baked, brushing off a skull dating back to the Stone Age. Likely I would not be thinking the work of digging to be futile and tedious, but fulfilling and exciting.
I wasn’t given the chance to walk even a quarter-mile in an archeologist’s shoes, though. And so I’ll never know what I would have thought of it really. All the same, I was fortunate that early enough in college I was afforded the opportunity by friends and teachers to take up the pen and put it to use, so that today I can confidently and without hesitation call myself “writer.”
What of your students? Will they get a cursory introduction to creative writing, thus missing their chance to conceive of themselves as authors? Or will theirs be a true apprenticeship into what it means to be a writer? Gaines offers this advice: “if you as teachers should find him or her before I do, then you pass on the tools. In the long run, he or she will not regret the favor” (44).