Monday, December 4, 2006

Teaching the Ape to Write

Teaching the Ape to Write Poems

They didn’t have much trouble
teaching the ape to write poems:
first they strapped him into the chair,
then they tied the pencil around his hand
(the paper had already been nailed down).
Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
and whispered into his ear:
“You look like a god sitting there.
Why don’t you write something?”

(James Tate)

Sometimes I think that teachers make the whole business of teaching writing too complicated. We put a whole lot of effort into lesson design and scaffolding exercises and rubrics. We feel like we have to provide and require students to work within predefined structures (like the 5-paragraph thesis essay) without which we assume that students would be at a loss.

I’ve written abut this topic before, as for example in “Essaying the Essay,” which Dan Mindich published on Faculty Shack. But I’m feeling the urge to say it again. For most of my teaching career the best writing my students have produced has been in response to a completely open-ended assignment: I simply ask students to hand in to me, once a week, a piece of writing that represents an hour’s worth of time on task. That’s it. No special topic. No special form. No set length. No constraints. Just write something. It can be something self-contained, or something which is a start or a continuation of something longer.

Whatever the students hand in, that’s what I deal with. Some students write personal essays. Some write short stories. Some are entirely made up, some are based on their favorite video games, some are thinly-veiled dramatizations of situations they have been in with their friends. Some write poems, often quite badly at first. A number of students have completed novels over the course of a semester.

It’s not that I don’t ever give directed assignments. I do. Students write in response to directed assignments as often, or perhaps a little more often, than they do on their own. But I also make space for the free-choice writing, for a number of reasons. First, because about 95% of the most interesting writing I see from students comes from those pieces. (Hasn’t every English teacher at one time or another faced a stack of essays to be graded with something like despair, putting off the process until the last possible moment and getting through it only by setting up a complicated system of self-rewards involving at the very least chocolate chip cookies and some kind of caffeinated beverage, and in more extreme cases carefully spaced infusions of grain alcohol? I certainly have. I know what I’m going to find, and I know it’s not going to be pretty. But I actually look forward to reading through a set of free-choice papers. Part of it is probably just the element of surprise: I don’t know what I’m going to find. But often there’s more to it than that.) Second, because I get to know what’s going on in my students heads much faster and much more deeply when I turn them loose than when I tell them what I want them to write. Third, I believe that we do our students a disservice when we take the decision-making process away from them. Every writer knows what it’s like to face a blank page. It’s intimidating. It’s challenging. It’s where becoming a writer begins. Students often get to the point, after a few weeks of free-choice papers, where they complain of having run out of topics. Now there’s a teachable moment. What do you do when you don’t know what to do? That’s a great question, and once it’s been said out loud, the student is in a position, with your as the teacher, to begin generating a list of answers.

Is it too obvious that one of the answers is simply to look at something? I tell the students to direct their attention somewhere. At an object, at a book, at a person, at a sunset. It doesn’t matter. Just look. Then write about what you see, and then write what you think about what you see.

Here, for example, is a well-known painting by Andrew Wyeth. (It’s not here entirely by accident. As I’ve been turning over in my mind what I thought I’d be writing about this week in the context of this blog, I found myself thinking about Wyeth, partially for aesthetic reasons–I thought the painting would look good on this page—and partially for thematic reasons—I’ve already written about my admiration for William Stafford and Ted Kooser, and it seems to me that Wyeth is part of a thread or throughline that connects all three to each other and to some other principles which I will eventually get around to articulating more fully. ) And here am I, in the position of our hypothetical student writer, wondering what I might have to say about what I am looking at. So here goes.

What I see: It’s an a scene with two parts, what’s inside and what’s outside. Inside is what seems to be a country house or farmhouse. In the foreground is a table with a white tablecloth on it. On the tablecloth is a plain white ceramic plate. On one side of the plate there’s a knife. On the other side is a cup and saucer, again plain white ceramic. The plate and the cup are empty.

The table is in the corner of a room, near a window. The walls of the room are covered with a yellow-brown wallpaper with an understated, or perhaps faded, floral design. The sun angling in the window is casting a parallelogram of light onto the wall next to the window. The windowframe itself and the wainscoting beneath it are painted white.

Outside the window is what appears to be a yard: the grass is cut short and there is a fencepost visible in the foreground. To the right of and further away than the fencepost are two large logs, perhaps two feet in diameter, lying on their side, from the trunk of a tree that has been chainsawed and cut into sections. The nearer of the two logs has a metal circle of some kind nailed onto it. The sharp edges of the wood where the tree broke are sticking out and pointing from the cut surface of the closer log.

There is a lot of brown and beige and white in the picture. The grass itself is uniformly brown but not covered in snow. It looks like it might be late winter or early spring.

Compositionally, the whole picture is a study in geometry. The rectangle of the picture itself in is subdivided into smaller rectangular planes seen from different angles: the table top, the walls, the window, the window panes themselves. The rectangles are mostly inside. Outside is mostly circles, or perhaps more accurately cylinders: the logs, the fencepost. The ground itself presents pretty much the only irregular element in an otherwise tightly controlled visual environment.

What I think about what I see: I like this picture a lot. It has a kind of quietness to it, a stillness, that is, well, Zen-like. At first glance it doesn’t seem to be about anything special; it’s just the corner of a room and a window. One gets the sense that Wyeth could paint a pretty interesting picture of anything at all, just because he is such a precise observer of what he’s looking at; the object of his attention is transformed and enriched by the quality of the attention he is paying to it. Which is, of course, now that I think of it—and I promise you this wasn’t a setup, I just came to this idea while I was writing it—the point I was trying to make in the first place. Students need to learn this. What goes on a blank page isn’t going to be good or bad simply because the subject or topic is good or bad. It’s going to be good or bad depending on the quality of attention they choose to devote to it. So one answer to the question of what to do when you don’t know what to write about is to do what Wyeth has done, and what I have tried to do here: look at something. Talk about what you see, and what you think about what you see.

Of course, that first move may well lead to more. That first glance is deceiving. Look again. That single table setting, for example. This is a solitary house, and it implies a solitary life. It’s a life of elemental simplicity: a rural life, not an urban life; an old-fashioned life, not a modern life. The painting presents itself simultaneously as a report on and an endorsement of this life. The inside world—the world of man—and the outside world—the world of nature—form within this picture a single whole, a unity. Those two circular shapes outside the window are mirrored by the circular shapes on the table. The flowers on the wall echo the grass on the ground. Even the knife on the table has its geometrical analogue in the fencepost outside. The sunlight bathes and illuminates and connects all of the corresponding elements.

One could go on. I have enough experience as a writer to know what the next move might be if I were inclined to continue, and if I didn’t know, I am confident that I could bust a move: make something up. But I would hope to have my students come to understand—to experience—how even the most modest observations can open up into richnesses, if only we can bring ourselves to begin.

1 comment:

C. Watson said...

I have had all the same experiences you describe when faced with the task of teaching and reading student writing. This year, I've been able to run a writing class a little differently than ever before. We negotiate (grades) on a quanitity/quality system. I give loose topics, show example essays, and allow students to basically write whatever they want, following basic tenets of good writing, like having a reason to exist, using details, onces, truths, economy of language. As expected, the good writers do their thing, the not-so-good writers struggle a bit. What's changed though is that the previously unmotivated not-so-good writers are thoroughly enjoying the class and the writing they're doing. And they say so. Sometimes I feel like I'm not being intense enough or rigorous enough, or something like that, when students tell me how much they like the class and how some haven't ever liked an English class. I think it's the freedom to write in their own writing-space. Next semester, they'll compose in the form of blogs. It'll be interesting to see how their investment changes.