Why I Write

In 2004, I left Kentucky to pursue a graduate degree as a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas in Austin. I was recently divorced, a walking crisis of faith, and I entered a program primarily peopled with students who were much younger. They both wrote and partied hard. I was reeling from a life rent-in-twain, reexamining every truth I’d ever held sacred.  Getting out of bed every morning and walking to the coffee shop around the corner was a victory.

I graduated from that program and returned to Kentucky in 2007. I came back with a new understanding of myself, the world, and my place in it. I now look back on those three years with all the grace that a decade of distance can bring to wilderness moments.

Another Michener Fellow, Jesse Donaldson, has recently published a book of essays, an extended argument to convince his wife to move from Portland where they presently live to Kentucky where he grew up.  Each essay is titled as one of the 120 counties in Kentucky. On October 22, Donaldson launched an ambitious book tour to read his book in every county in the Commonwealth. Yesterday he came to my classroom to read a portion of his book and to talk to my students about writing. He brought with him another Michener Fellow, Greg Koehler, a Texas poet, who was along for a portion of the tour.  

I teach writing in a creative and performing arts program at a large urban high school.  Students who audition and are accepted into the program stay with me for four years, so I am exceptionally close to the juniors and seniors, who were the audience for Greg and Jesse’s reading.  

Tuesday morning: my classroom was dim, lit by festival lights strung across the room.  Fifteen juniors and seniors sat in a semi-circle. Jesse read from his book and talked about writing with such wisdom and generosity.  My students listened intently.  I was aware of how proud I was of them, so smart, that they understood what good stuff Jesse was dishing out and were honoring it with their attention, their interest.

After Jesse talked, Greg took over and read a poem called “Kentucky River Dirge,” a poem he had written during our time in Austin, based on many of the conversations he and I had had about my longing for home, my own nostalgia for the land of my birth, and our mutual love for soil and all the metaphorical power of the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years. (Thank you, Wendell Berry.)

As he read the poem, I heard lines I had forgotten I uttered, emanating from a time and place I no longer visit, in a voice I no longer use.  In a moment, I was both 50 and 40 years old, both graduate student and high school teacher. Both the wrung-out, strung-out Austin Liz, and the contented, comfortable Kentucky Liz.

Of course, to my students, these lines were merely poetry. As if.

To me, they were sodden afternoons at the Crown and Anchor, so many cigarettes, so many Texas backyard midnight parties, so much reeling from the lost tethers of church and family, a reminder of my struggle to find footing by telling those stories of tobacco and smokehouses. Greg transported me, not only a decade back into my life, but to my childhood as I followed my father to the field, burning tobacco beds to receive the seeds, to my mother’s own stories of sleepwalking along the roof of the smokehouse.

And there I sat, in all my respectability, in my lanyard and my ring of keys, listening to an anthem of a person I once was, rolled out in language. Hanging in the air, among the lights, among my students. Actual words. Hung on lines of poetry, tied together in an activity we call writing. An activity that I ask my students to engage in daily.

I wanted to pitch myself headlong out of my chair and roll around on the floor. The revelation of this moment, the wrecking juxtaposition.  Worlds colliding. My precious students, my old friends, my memories, all occupying some metaphysical space in Room 303.

But even more profound was my wish to impress upon my charges that writing had the power to do all this, to transcend time and resurrect people we once were and allow us to live in both present time and at any time in the chronicled history or in history that has yet to exist.  

 

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Why Do We Divide Writing into Modes?

 

When I was in high school, we used a textbook that divided writing instruction into different rhetorical modes:  description, exemplification, narration, process, comparison and contrast, classification, definition, cause and effect and argumentation.  While newer textbooks are now organized thematically —Jim Burke’s high school reader Uncharted Territory (2017) is a good example, organized topically by education, freedom, identity, and relationships—we often still draw those instructional lines when teaching argumentative, informative, and narrative texts as if each mode had different aims.

We English teachers love classifications because they help us process information.  I am guilty of divvying up writing skills and processes into isolated categories, and I’ve often sacrificed authentic student writing, creating expository boundaries where none existed, for neat and tidy curriculum units.

But real writing resists all that – good writing is especially resistant to classification. It’s good because it’s clear, artful, and has achieved its purpose, not because it has followed a pre-determined form or met the properties of a specific mode. In any given text, the three modes delineated by the Common Core—argumentative, informative and narrative—are blended to the point that the reader isn’t struck by disparate text forms but the gestalt of the whole essay. How would one characterize Oliver Sack’s A Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat or Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers or Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Heinretta Lacks?  These are texts which tell a story to enlighten the reader using data and scientific research surrounding a critical argument that serves as the heart of the work. Is Skloot’s book a narrative? Yes. Is it an argument? Yes. Is it an informational text? Yes.

As Andrea Lunsford attests in her book, Everything is An Argument, I would assert that Everything is a Narrative and Everything is Informative, and all of it is born from the writer’s creativity and critical thought. When strict distinctions exist between argumentative, informative and narrative writing, students begin to think of modal boundaries as inescapable territories beyond which their writing must not pass, even though the authors of the Common Core do concede that “skilled writers many times use a blend of these three text types to accomplish their purposes.”

“For all a rhetorician’s rules/Teach nothing but to name his tools.” – Samuel Butler

Writers determine their product by their own need and urgency to communicate and their (perhaps) vague awareness (at the outset) of their rhetorical situation.  On the occasion of publishing his first novel (after working as an award-winning short story writer for his entire career), George Saunders wrote an essay for The Guardian about his process of writing his novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. He says it’s a mistaken notion to think a writer has something to express and then he just expresses it.  “We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same. The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.”

Saunders’ claim – that the expression of an idea doesn’t become fully clarified until one begins to actually write and its birth is shrouded in mystery and pain – doesn’t apply only to fiction writers or writers working at a certain level of sophistication. As a writer myself for forty years and a teacher of student writers for nearly a quarter century, let me testify:   all writers struggle similarly and mightily.

All writers, at every level, attempting any expression, enter into an exasperating and blind process. It is only after the writing is finished that it’s seen as following a similar pattern represented within a certain house of discourse. Once I left my high school English classroom,  I never once thought of those modes because I never again found writing situations so nicely diced up.

 

Writing Lessons

During the summer of 2015, I was writing what I had hoped might become a collection of short stories. One day  I took a break to write a letter to prospective students of the literary arts program where I teach.  As I wrote the letter,  I was struck by how differently I taught writing then as compared with the first half of my teaching career.

That might make a good book, I thought, and I jotted down about eight rough ideas for chapters.  The next day, I typed it up and did some research on publishing houses.  I contacted an education writer friend of mine for pointers.  Then I wrote out a more formal proposal, a fleshed out table of contents, coupled with a cover letter and shipped it all off.  That was June 30.  

On July 7, my cell phone rang. It was an acquisitions editor with Heinemann Press. They were interested in my book idea.  I was completely floored.  I thought I had just sold my first book.  

Not so.

During the next nine months, I rewrote that proposal six times.  My editor was interested in my idea, but I couldn’t frame the subject in a way that convinced the marketing department. Finally in March, I was offered a contract and started the process of writing.  

During the summer of 2016, I wrote daily,  and by the time  I was ready to go back to school in August, I had a 70,000-word draft finished. I revised that draft twice, and the final manuscript was delivered to Heinemann on January 3, 2017.  

Sometime in September, I will hold the finished book, Project-Based Writing: Teaching Writers to Manage Time and Clarify Purpose, in my hands, this book that happened while I was working on another book. This is the way life works, of course.  

I always thought my first book would be either a memoir or a collection of short stories. A teacher’s resource book just wasn’t sexy enough for my inaugural foray into the world of publishing, but here it is, and I’m so proud of it and stunned by the insights I’ve gained along the way. In no particular order, here are some of those observations:

Every teacher should write a book about her practice.  Like writing, the actual moves of teaching are enormously personal and idiosyncratic. My teaching strategies are mostly of the moment. Until I sat down to try to  articulate my practice, I had no idea what elemental steps figured into my methods. Even though I daily reflect on my teaching practice, it’s often done anecdotally with friends over BBQ nachos, and not as a serious reflective endeavor. Writing this book forced me to seriously look at what I do; some of it was nice, even fun, to look at. Some of it, I realized, didn’t work, but I got the opportunity to figure that out.  

I am a first draft disaster. I have never been a writer who thinks through a logical line or narrative arc,  then commits that to an outline. I just throw a bunch of sentences on a blank page and cry for several days.  I have to write bits and halves and parts before I recognize the whole. Once I’ve discovered that, I have to organize it in such a way that readers won’t want to toss it in the trash in disgust. Organization requires looking at big chunks of writing for patterns and commonalities, then arranging those chunks in a sequential way that helps a reader see the point. So I wish I’d learned how to outline earlier in life.   

Edu-speak makes me lazy.  There were so many times when I was writing this book I unconsciously lapsed into the convenient jargon of our ilk.  When I couldn’t find the right words to describe something real in my classroom, sentences like “Students benefit from innovative competency-based practices in a data-driven environment” were always hanging around like an old boyfriend– comfortable, willing, and only a keystroke away. Ugh.  Think about how much better those awful education classes would have been if the writers had just used regular words to describe learning. Why don’t we demand better writing from the books of our discipline?  

Keeping a source list is crucial.  In college, I hated compiling the works cited and consulted page after I finished a research paper; it just seemed so unnecessary.  I wasn’t vested in the writing I was doing and the stakes were low. (This is how, I imagine, most students feel about writing for teachers.)  But during the writing of this book, I realized the stakes were much higher.  People would be reading this book, I hoped, and I certainly didn’t want to unwittingly plagiarize someone else’s language. The problem I had was 1) I don’t typically write down the sources of cool things I find in books or online, and 2) there are books, essays, and stories I’ve read so many times, they’re ingrained in my mind to the point where I didn’t know where their words ended and my words began. Two weeks before the book was printed, I was horrified to discover I had not attributed a beautiful quote from a friend of mine.  Source list:  it’s a must.

No one really knows what you’re doing.  If I mentioned to friends I was working on a book, “that’s nice” or “how interesting” was the normal response, followed by silence.  The last thing anyone wants to ask is “what’s it about?” because then they’re on the hook to act interested while I nanner on for twenty minutes about some possibly esoteric topic.  So when you write a book, you are laboring completely alone.  You are working and creating and having bad days and good days and stonewalls and breakthroughs, yet no one knows you are doing anything at all. You might as well be lying on the couch watching SVU.  As is the case with all creative endeavors, I suppose.  As is the case with research scientists too. Only after the creation emerges can it be shared with others.