Freire and Writing

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.

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