Once you understand that learning is connecting new stuff to old stuff… once you understand how to learn through your reading… you are ready to think about learning through written expression.
Just like the last two chapters we need to lay some groundwork and make sure we understand where we are headed. We said in an earlier chapter that often in school you are asked to read so you can respond. Sometimes that response is oral… the teacher asks you to speak up in class. But more often than not the response comes in the form of some kind of written composition… often what we call an essay.
Our goal in this chapter is no different from the previous chapter in that we want to focus on learning. We ask this question:
How can I learn through my writing?
Here’s the problem for most young writers. They work from form to content. What do I mean by that? A teacher gives you a writing assignment… write a poem. So you go home and sit down and look at the blank computer screen and it looks back at you and you tell yourself to write a poem… write a poem… write a poem. As the frustration mounts you start throwing something… anything… on the page so you can call it done. But when you finish you tell yourself that your product will be the worst in the class. Sadly the next day the teacher sends you home to write a short story, and the whole terrible process starts over, only to be told the following day this time it’s an essay you must write.
Let’s first point out that this approach of writing from form to content is not the way professional writers write. Really? What have professional writers figured out that most high school writers don’t understand? It’s simple really. People who write for a living know that instead of starting with the form, you must start with an idea. Once you have an idea then you can turn that idea into any number of different forms of writing.
Years ago I was doing research on how students compose. I was allowed to enter middle school classrooms. After being introduced I would tell the young 7th graders that we were going to write, and a audible groan would go across the room. I put them at ease by telling them that it was not for a grade. They eyed me suspiciously. I told them I wanted them to write on their favorite animal, and then I would go to the back of the room and sit down and just watch.
I was not interested in what they wrote… but rather I wanted to learn how they wrote… the actual process. Out of the silence of the room there was always the first sighs that would start… then the clicking of pens… tapping of tabletops. Finally some brave soul would start writing, but it seemed in classroom after classroom that brave student would get somewhere between the 5th and the 7th line and she would stop writing… start reading what she had written… and tear out the page from her notebook… and the sighing would start all over again.
Years later I came to room 303 in a small town high school in the middle of Wyoming. My first class was a senior level composition course. I introduced myself on day one and told them we would write for the first day of class and there was the same groan I had heard years before in 7th grade classrooms. They were relieved when I said it was not for a grade and I gave them a senior level assignment. I asked them to write on the one place they would rather be than in room 303… and with whom they would like to be. I thought that was a good enough assignment to keep them busy. I went to my desk and sat down and started writing myself… and I waited. The room grew silent and I started counting in my head… 10 seconds… and the first sigh… 15 seconds… the tapping started… 1 minute and the first page being torn out of a notebook!
Over the years I have told this story and I get the same kind of response. Most students can relate to this kind of frustration at having to write something on demand. Most students know what it means to start writing and then to stop writing and start reading and finding all kinds of errors… or just realizing that the writing ‘sucks’… and then finally when the student is ready to resume writing where he or she left off, the idea he or she was working on… is gone. Sad.
Try this next time you are hanging out with your pals. Bet a person $5 that he can’t do a simple activity of reading and writing. Have the person sit at a table with a pen and blank paper. Tell the person to start writing on some random topic, what he was doing last night… anything. Let him write for 7 lines and then whisper in his ear, “Now I want you to keep writing, but I want you to read out loud what you wrote on the first 5 lines.” Guess what… this simple activity can’t be done. There is not a single person in the world who can do this! Isn’t that amazing? As remarkable as the human mind is, there are two actions that it can’t do at the same time. Your mind can’t write AND read at the same time.
This fact explains why writing for most of us is so difficult. We start writing, and then somewhere between the 5th and 7th line we start reading what we have written. But since we can’t write AND read, we stop writing and start reading, and in the process we lose the possible idea with which we were working.
How can we explain this process? When you write, you are working with two ‘minds’ or two ‘voices’ in your head. The first mind is the mind of the creator. Off you go creating… writing. But then from out of the shadows steps the second mind, the editor mind. And this editor voice speaks to the creator mind. He says, “Do you have any idea how bad you are at this writing thing? If you don’t believe me stop writing and start reading and you will see just how much you suck at writing. Your stuff is worse than any other student in the class. Go ahead… read your crap and see what I mean.”
And it works. The creator mind is very fragile and will go away very quickly. The editor voice is strong, and guess what… most of the time he is right when you go back and read an early draft of anything you have written. The origin of this editor voice is a subject for another time. You began to develop it early in life. It might have started when the people who raised you stepped into your room, and the first thing they said was something about how messy the room was. Who knows? Who cares?
Your job now is to be aware of the ways that this tension between your creator mind and your editor voice happens. This struggle might be part of the reason why you hate to write. The key for us, if we are going to learn through our writing, is to let the creator do his or her job… and then LATER, let the editor do his or her job.
The way to get there is to do what I call Jam writing. Others have called this kind of writing free writing. The idea is actually very simple. It is built on a notion that from an early age you learned how to talk to yourself. Imagine this for a moment… you are driving somewhere in the middle of the night and you are totally alone…. your car breaks down… you have no cell service. Notice what’s the first thing you do. You start talking to yourself… “Oh… this is just great. What the heck am I going to do now?” Imagine if someone were to sneak up behind you and whisper, “To whom are you speaking?” After you finishing peeing yourself from shock, you would have to admit that you were speaking… well…to… yourself.
Watch young kids playing with blocks. Look at their lips moving as they place one block on another. Somewhere in your early years of school you learned to internalize this self-speak. But we see it all the time with ball players. Watch the baseball player step out of the batters box and look down the third base line. See his lips are moving? He’s talking to himself… coaching himself.
By the way this same internal tension between two voices is ever present in the mind of the athlete. As the golfer is about to putt for eagle, the coach’s voice can start telling the player mind that he will miss the putt because he has not practiced enough. This critical voice in our head can actually paralyze us into non-action. But we are here now to talk about writing, so let’s talk about Jam writing as a way to let the creator mind work, while telling the editor voice to stand down.
The rules for Jam writing are actually pretty simple. We begin by saying that this writing is only for you. No one will ever read this stuff. Second we are going to write down on paper… or type on computer... whatever is in our mind. No kidding. The very things that you are thinking are what you are going to write down, as honestly as possible. If you are thinking ‘I don’t know what I want to write about’… that’s what you write on the page. Whatever is in your brain goes onto the page. The third rule is that for at least 10 minutes you will not stop moving the pen or typing the words.
Do you remember those wonderful PE classes in middle school when you were told to run the mile? Around the track you went but at some point your side started to hurt and so you slowed down to a walk, but the teacher screamed, “Keep going!” You were certain that you were going to fall down right on the track and die with all your pals staring down at you saying, “Bummer.” Well for those of us who never learned how to keep going, there is a wall of pain, which once you get through it, you CAN keep going for a while. Good runners will tell you that the key is to hit that wall quickly… get through it and… keep going.
The editor voice becomes strongest around minute 7-10 when we start learning how to Jam write. So I’m going to suggest that you learn to push through that wall and keep going. On the other side of 10 minutes you will find remarkable things that the creator is ready to say, if you will only let her or him… keep going.
Finally Jam writing does not concern itself with rules of writing and grammar. Since no one is going to read what you are writing anyway, you don’t have to worry about spelling… correct word choice… or proper grammar. This kind of writing can be very liberating for those of us who learned to hate those things early on in school.
There are two kinds of Jam writing. Focused Jam writing begins with a topic, and you write on that topic until your creator mind is ready to leave it and run off writing about something else. Don’t fight that desire to depart the path. You want that. Write on that new idea until it runs out, and when it does, remember what the original topic was and go right back to it. The second kind of Jam writing is unfocused. This takes a little more practice; you sit down and literally start writing about whatever is in your mind.
Once we have some words on the page then we will go back and begin to read through our stuff searching for ideas that we can turn into any number of different forms of writing. Because we are working with our own ideas we will be surprised often at what we have to say.
Let’s call Jam writing… Discovery writing…
We write, not because we know what we want to say… but rather we write to find out what it is we HAVE to say. Robert Frost, the great American poet, said about his writing, “For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew.” Or how about what the great British novelist E.M. Forster said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”
This approach to writing allows you to connect new ideas to old ideas and thereby… learn through your writing. Many years ago I was fortunate to be put in a classroom with a young man who had serious anger management issues. I taught him how to Jam write. He confided to me one day that after school he was going to beat the snot out of some kid who had been picking on him. Instead of telling him reasons why he should not resolve his conflict with fists, I told him that he should sit down and Jam write for one full hour describing in full detail all the terrible things he was going to do to the bully. I sat in the same room with Reggie as he wrote page after page. Around 30 minutes his hand fatigued and he was ready to stop but I demanded that he keep going. He labored on, but by the end of 60 minutes he was mentally exhausted. Looking at his writing at the end of the hour, he had convinced himself that fighting would only land him back at the boys school, from which he had recently been released, and besides violence would only bring more violence!
But we did look at his stuff. It was extreme… but it was powerful. I showed him how to take some of the ideas and create poems and stories from them. He ended up winning a local writing contest using some of these ideas.
So… there you go. Jam writing is a way to start to think of writing as a way to learn through your writing. Begin with what you know, your own ideas. Use those ideas to create any number of forms of writing. Try this approach for a while and see if it helps you find your own compositional voice. Who knows… maybe at some point you will decide writing can actually be… fun.
Where to next? Let’s talk about organization… and how to overcome the “P” word.