What Teaching Writing Taught Me About Writing

I started teaching Creative Writing this past January. My first class was a group of 4th-5th grade girls from Sacred Heart, the school where I also coach middle-school debate. Before I started coaching debate, I never thought I'd be a good teacher to kids; in fact, I was planning to go to grad school and get my teaching certificate so I could teach English at two-year colleges instead. However, after working with these kids, I've found a new passion in helping young kids find the joys of creativity and storytelling.

And maybe this is super cliche, but the kids have taught me as much as I've taught them. Shortly after finishing up my first session with the kids from Sacred Heart, I got a job teaching creative writing workshops at Open Books in Chicago's West Loop. The kids I teach at Open Books vary wildly depending on the workshop. Sometimes I teach 3rd graders. Sometimes I teach high schoolers. Sometimes I teach groups of ten students; sometimes I teach groups of more than 40 students; and sometimes I teach everything in between. But one thing remains the same: teaching for Open Books is one of the best jobs I've ever had.

So, in the interest of giving out some Friday afternoon writing advice, I wanted to share with you all what I've learned about writing from teaching.

Probably the most important thing I've learned is that everyone feels unnecessary amounts of pressure. When I was a little kid, writing was always exciting. I could just get out stacks of paper and make anything in my imagination come to life. Writer's block was not a concept that existed. It didn't matter if what I wrote was "good" or "bad," because I was just writing it for myself, and having fun with my own imagination.

Then, as I got farther up in school, grades started mattering more and more. It mattered whether I knew how to break my writing up into five paragraphs. It mattered whether I knew where to put a thesis, and how to tie every paragraph back to my main argument. It didn't matter as much if the language was engaging, or if the dialogue was exciting. What mattered was following formulas and getting the best score possible. How else do you expect to get into college?

At the end of college, it got even worse. Could I write a concise, yet informative, cover letter? One that would stand out from the hundreds of other applicants I was competing against? What if what I wrote wasn't as good as what someone else wrote, and I ended up unemployed?

I'm writing with a big smile on my face--
the way you should write, too!
As I became and adult, the process of writing--even fiction--just kept getting harder. While the quality has gone up, it's often harder to get started in the first place. What if my first sentence was boring? What if the syntax was amateur-ish? Logically, of course, I knew that I could go back and fix those things later. But worrying that a piece of writing had no potential made it hard to even continue in the first place.

When I started teaching in January, I did a writing exercise with my kids. I wanted them to come up with their own characters, and then I would take them through a guided writing sprint to figure out that character's arc.

So I said, "First, think up a character. First thing that comes to your mind. It can be anyone or anything you want."

One girl asked, "Can it be a dog, or does it have to be a human?"

So I replied, "Of course it can be a dog! Your character can be anyone you want."

The next girl asked, "So does it have to be a real animal, like a dog, then? Can it be an animal you made up?"

I repeated, "It can be anyone you want. You can make up an animal or a magical creature or anything that comes to mind."

The thing was, this was an after-school class. It was just for fun. We were going to work on writing together, edit each other's stories, and then put together a class-wide anthology that the students could take home. There were no grades. There were no consequences to writing anything "bad." There was total, 100% creative freedom. But still, it was hard to get outside the mindset of being structured--of asking whether they were "allowed" to write what was in their imaginations.

I reminded the girls that they weren't being graded, and that their stories could be anything they want. By the end of the class, they'd created beautiful, complete stories with interesting characters. They'd dreamed up robots and magical teddy bears.

Now that I've taught kids from a variety of age groups, from 8 to 18, from all different sections of Chicago, two things remain the same. First, they struggle to get outside of their own heads. They say, "I don't know what to write." Or, "I don't know the answer." Second, once they do get past that initial fear, they write some beautiful stuff. I've seen kids who claimed they didn't understand poetry write beautiful raps about the political climate in the US. I've seen kids who didn't know what to write, end up writing gorgeous stories about unicorns and imaginary creatures and magical adventures. Most of them were able to write these things within the span of an hour, once they let themselves go.

If they can do it, we can too. As adults, it's often super hard to let go and just write what comes to mind. I guess I feel kind of guilty giving out so much writing advice on my blog, because part of the problem is, there is too much writing advice out there! Too many books that tell you how to structure a story, or how to make sure a character is multi-dimensional enough. Too many internet memes about how writers are self-loathing. I'm not self-loathing. I'm proud of my work. And you should be, too.

So, my best advice is this: remember that when you write, no one is grading you. Do what you can do get yourself back in that imaginative childhood mindset, where anything you think of can become reality. Let yourself daydream.

Happy writing!



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