Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Why it's important to teach kids to be horrible writers.

I've been persuading my students to participate alongside me during National Novel Writing Month for a few years now, and every year I hear a significant amount of moaning and groaning about the endeavor. Most recently, my students have been poor, helpless sixth graders, compelled against their wills to write between 1500 and 3000 words of fiction, with a proper story line and all. That's one of the things that crosses over from the writer part of me to the teacher part of me: god-like control over the fates of developing characters.

Here's what I hear the most:

I don't have any ideas.
I'm a terrible speller.
I'm bad at writing. 
I hate writing. Why do we have to do this?

This always strikes me as sad. For one thing, how can sixth graders not have ideas? I've never heard in my life more bizarrely interesting narratives than those shared amongst twelve years olds before class begins. They have ideas, but I think sometimes they protect them from teachers because rather often we spend more time correcting their grammar than acknowledging their thoughts.

I can't help but feel like the self-proclaimed lack of ideas is related to the belief that they're bad writers, and that the belief that they're bad writers is related to their views of spelling and grammar as hurdles to writing success. Sure. It's important that kids develop an understanding of correct spelling and conventional grammar, but those aren't the things that make great writing. Great writing comes from risk-taking. Great writing is a product of the unconventional. Some of the greatest writers have completely tossed aside grammar and spelling in favor of style and voice.

Comma splices can be fixed. But it's hard to repair a kid's belief that somehow his poor spelling translates to terrible ideas. That belief is crippling, not only to the child as a writer, but to the child as a thinker.

This is where I have to get back to fun in the classroom. I'm aware that every minute of every day can't be a trip to Disneyworld. I've even expressed that to my kids on occasion. But that doesn't mean that every day has to be terror-filled lest we forget to dot an i. It doesn't mean that we have to make every assignment a Geneva Convention violation that we pick to pieces until it's a bloody tattered flag of surrender that some kid throws up with the plea, "I can't help it. I'm a terrible writer."

Writing is hard work. Coming up with ideas is no walk in the park (unless walking in the park is how you come up with ideas). Published writers, writers who make money doing it, writers who seem to write without any self-doubt, struggle with writing, believe they're writing is terrible when they're in the midst of it. Chuck Wendig, one of my favorite writers, had a whole Twitter dialogue with Richard Kadrey about the insecurities that most, if not all, writers struggle with. If writing is hard to the best writers, those writers who've been encouraged, whose books have sold, who have evidence that people like them, they really like them, how much harder is it for kids who know that they're ideas are lying at the feet of someone whose job is to tear it apart in the hunt for errors?

This is why I love National Novel Writing Month. This is why I'm utterly committed to it despite the fact that on certain days, after I've read for the third time a tale of a vampire-loving werewolf, I want to gouge my eyes out. 

"Oh, Edward. How I love your sparkly skin."

When my kids start to freeze up, right from the outset, start to offer their defeated protests, I offer them this: I challenge you to write the most horrible story of all times. Create something truly godawful. Something that will make your parents consider committing you to an institution, that will make them utterly resent paying taxes to support the institution of public education. It's okay. I'm looking for the worst, most preposterous story ever written.

And out tumble some of the most original stories that I've ever read. Stories about talking chickens from outer space. Stories that feature me as a secret agent whose headquarters can be found in the bowels of a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Stories of parallel universes where everything is made of candy, teenage spy girls, lots and lots of zombie apocalypses. And, yes, stories of vampire-loving werewolves.

After two days, I can't get them to quit writing. They beg for time to read their stories out loud to one another. They read to an audience of their peers who also love talking chickens and zombies, and they're met with applause and laughter (the good kind). They start to think, "Well, I was trying to write the worst novel in the world, but it looks like I failed at that because these other people like my story." That's a failure that most people can live with.

Is the grammar terrible? God, yes. Can we fix it? Absofreakinglutely. Do we have to fix it right away? Do we have to focus on the spelling and grammar in the initial throes of world-creating excitement? No way. Forget it. 

Because here's the thing about writing. As with every skill, it only improves with practice, and people don't practice things that they hate doing. They practice things that they enjoy. If learning isn't fun, if we can't make writing enjoyable, especially in the early years of school, kids won't practice, and they won't get better at it. If they never have the opportunity to come up with their very own completely ridiculous ideas, with their sometimes godawful ideas, they won't get better at thinking either.

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