My confession emerged yesterday during a class discussion of Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” an essay in which she writes empathetically about a plain moth unsuccessfully struggling to find its way through a window and to the light. Woolf’s essay becomes a meditation on endurance, limitations, and eventually death. Its purpose seems to be nothing more than Woolf reflecting on why the observation of this small moment reverberated in her with such emotional intensity.
Most writers can relate to that. I know that when I’m trying to work my way through some sludge or explore my own state of mind, I need to write about it.
If writing has any utilitarian value, maybe it’s just that: Writing can help us explain ourselves to ourselves. Writers understand this, but how often do writing teachers help students appreciate the value of such reflective writing?
In school we ask students to learn persuasive and expository techniques and approaches. We help them create description and figures of speech. We give them advice about how to organize and develop their writing.
Then we ask students to write for us or for other audiences.
What if we helped students to better understand the value of writing for themselves? What might it mean if students learned that writing can help lead them out of their own dark places? What if young writers could learn to see how writing can be their vehicle for problem solving and conflict resolution? We can help student writers understand that when we put our emotions down on paper, they become more of an object. When our feelings are written down, they are a little more outside of us, which means we can see them better and work on them with more clarity.
Personal writing leads students to spontaneously experiment with words in ways that result in surprising versions of their own writing styles. The satisfaction (maybe even pleasure) derived from this personal writing can infuse other more academic writing with fresh, unique voices. Young writers are more willing to dig deeply as they think about their own situations and issues; they can then apply that deeper level of thinking to the scholarly tasks that schooling demands.
Those of us who approach reading by using class time for both personal reading and literary study can adapt our writing instruction in a similar manner. What if students had time each day to write only for themselves, but we still covered all of our composition goals of teaching students to write effectively in a variety of modes for a variety of audiences?
I can hear the chorus of well-intentioned objectors warming up in the background: “But that kind of writing isn’t on the state test.” “We don’t have time for that kind of writing.” “How do we grade it?”
Those are realistic concerns, and there are ways to address them, but please don’t let that kind of thinking become an obstacle to the most important goal: Help students see themselves as writers.
A student recently said to me, “When I talk, I have a small voice or sometimes no voice. When I write, I have a big voice.” She is a different, more powerful person when she writes. And she knows it.