I’ve recently read more than my share of blog posts and articles on “Writing as Discovery.” The sense is not new, of course, but the renewed (if that’s what it is) interest in writing towards these ends is refreshing.
As a teacher for almost 25 years, and an attendant at numerous conferences or workshops at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking, my pedagogical quiver contains scores of methods for engaging students in writing to learn or writing as discovery. This is informal writing, and primary among the methods I use is freewriting as a means for writing to think, and writing to learn. It’s all about writing as discovery and the methods all rely on a mindset of “just getting it down.”
I’ve read Paul Thomas’s post about the dangers of “writing recipes,” and I appreciate the description of his process. I suppose one thing to admit if we’re going to dive into writing and discovery with our students is that we as teachers must also be writers and see ourselves in that light. Further, we need to immerse ourselves in the scholarship surrounding creativity and creative production. Doing so will give us a familiarity with the creative act (and writing of all types is, certainly, creative) and, more important, the vocabulary with which to discuss the act.
My goal as a teacher is not to create writers. By the time students get to me they have enough facility with language for me to call them writers (ie., people capable of writing). But if I’m going to get them to see themselves as more than writers in a utilitarian sense, if I want them to believe they can use writing to affect deep thought and emotion in their audience, then I have to teach them how to think in “writerly ways.” (With this term I’m riffing off of Nigel Cross’s work in the UK and his promotion of Design as a discipline for study and the creation of “designerly minded” learners.) That is, I have to help them develop the mindset and questioning techniques of writers. Any teacher who seeks to accomplish such must see herself as a writer in that sense as well. In that, she must be one of the “teachers of ambition” (a great article from Ed Week 2004 https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2004/09/08/02banner.h24.html) who not only “teach English” but who live the lives of writers: watching, observing, and questioning the world in intensely curious ways…in manners similar to scientists, but who report on their findings in ways utterly different than scientists. (Though seriously, it’s freakishly frightening that our theories of the end of the universe are that it will expand into a cold, whimpering “emptiness” and T.S. Eliot writes more or less the same (“This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper”).
So if it’s teaching writing as discovery, then I’m making sure I’m constantly doing PD (BARD!!!!!) in writing pedagogy. I’m reading books like Writing Down the Bones, Bird by Bird, Zen in the Art of Writing (a personal favorite by Ray Bradbury); any books on writing Pedagogy like Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power, Writing without Teachers, A Community of Writers; books on the creative process like A Whack on the Side of the Head, A Kick in the Seat of the Pants (both by Roger von Oech), Thinkertoys, Five Star Mind, A Whole New Mind, and countless others. And, of course, countless articles, etc.
To my teacher friends, perhaps it isn’t all that helpful, to say, go read all these things, go shift your weltanschauung. But seriously, regardless of what you teach, if you’re not intensely curious about it, then you ought not teach it. And students know this. They know that the best teachers of a subject, the ones who go beyond the content and who craft a compelling story about why living a life that reads and writes the world through a mindset of science, math, words, etc…those are the teachers who transfer the sparks of passion, who offer learning as a gift and not a mere duty. And that gift grows in the student, for they begin to discover their world expanding through mathematical patterns, scientific processes, musical harmonies, or words…”mere words.”
But maybe the best way to teach writing as discovery is to just share our own writing with students, to show them where we discovered things and how that happened. To turn the classroom into a congregation worshiping at the miracle of creation, whatever form that creation may take. For me, it is words, and not merely their consumption through reading books. My classroom is a place to marvel at the utterly unique pairings, juxtapositions, and random wonders of words in all the varied forms and structures we have created. It is a place to linger over those forms and structures, and to revel in the joy of new forms of expression we discover along the way towards a better understanding of who we are as human beings.