When I lost my teaching job, I decided to return to my old love—writing. My next thought was oh my god, how will I ever support myself by writing? I taught writing for twenty-four years, yet I somehow felt unprepared to become a writer myself. In most fields one becomes an expert on a subject before teaching it. After all, who wants to learn computer programming, welding, and certainly aviation from someone without any hands-on experience?
But I have most certainly taught writing. I've demonstrated how to form letters in sand and how to hold a pencil correctly. I've gotten second-graders to brainstorm forty words to use instead of “said.” I've modeled how to use templates, timelines, and story maps. I've provided writing prompts and convinced reluctant seven-year-olds that their stories are worth telling. I’ve even taken a whole class of children across the street to the park and had them close their eyes and simply listen to the sounds around them for inspiration. Then, once they’ve got something down on paper, I have delicately introduced to them concept of revision when confronted with yet another breakfast-to-bed story…
I woke up and had breakfast. Then I went to school. Then I came home and had a snack. Then I did homework and watched TV. We had chicken for dinner. Then I took a bath and went to bed. The end!
You can’t come right out and say to a child, “That’s not a story—that’s a sure cure for insomnia!” First of all, negative criticism is likely to shut them down completely, and second, they’re not going to know what insomnia means, so the joke would be totally wasted on them. So you start with the positive—find something they did right: “I like the way you were specific. I can just see that chicken on the plate.” Of course you have to be careful or else the revision will sound something like this:
I woke up at 7:15. Then I had cereal for breakfast. Then I went to school and had math, reading, recess, P.E., spelling, lunch, science, and an assembly. Then…
This will probably be followed by a detailed account of what was on the dinner plate, and guaranteed to have the reader snoring by dessert.
So teaching writing requires not only a bag of tricks to get words on a page, but the diplomacy necessary to convince a budding author that a blow-by-blow account of the baseball game he watched is not really a narrative. This is not to say that all the writing I have shepherded through my career is drivel. I have come across gifted story-tellers and exquisite poets, all between the ages of five and nine. I have marveled at amazing creativity and cried at excruciating heartbreak. I have laughed out loud at their honest humor and laughed on the inside when the humor wasn’t intentional.
Then there are those specific grammatical considerations, pesky capitalization and punctuation rules, and—despite the invention of spell-check—some familiarity with the correct spelling of words. I truly believe writing is the most complicated of all the subjects to learn, just by sheer volume of conventions one must memorize and perform all at the same time. I mean, think about how many levels there are: First you have to decide what you will write. Settling on the content could take up a whole class period. Next comes the question of style. What format will best convey what you want to communicate? Perhaps that story about a boy and his collie would be funnier from the dog’s point of view. What if you wrote your memoir in verse? All of this takes time and you haven’t even set any words to paper. Then there’s that whole mechanical side of things: your brain communicates where on the line you’re supposed to start the letter “b.” There are so many considerations: Is this word capitalized? How do you spell it? What kind of punctuation should be involved? Did you remember to put a subject and a verb in your sentence? Does it make sense? Will anyone be able to read your handwriting? Several brain cells have been spent and you’ve only completed one sentence. How on earth did David Foster Wallace write over a thousand pages in one novel?
If I start thinking about each word too much I’m just going to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over my head.
Okay, it’s time to look at the big picture. Take a deep breath. Think about how I got here in the first place: Back in the fourth grade I had convinced myself that I was going to be the great American novelist, living the quiet writer’s life in semi-seclusion, appearing reluctantly now and then for the occasional interview and book tour. When I entered high school I wrote lots of stories and poems. The problem is that so did everyone else. Every third freshman had notions of becoming a novelist—those who weren't planning to be professional athletes or high-ranking politicians. I decided to explore new avenues.
Every Sunday night I watched 60 Minutes, and it wasn’t long before I vowed to be the next Mike Wallace. I began my career as a news correspondent: I joined the newspaper staff. I began as a reporter and worked all the way up to editor-in-chief. I have to say: the power was intoxicating. I would be the muckraking newspaper reporter, asking the tough questions, meeting whistle-blowers secretly, and bravely going to jail because I refused to reveal my sources.
In college I started over again as a freshman reporter, covering stories with zeal, certain that my superiors would appreciate my expertise and promote me to a position that was more in line with my abilities. But when the next semester’s editors were announced, my name was not among them. The new editor-in-chief had put his friends in the plum spots, completely overlooking qualities like experience, loyalty, and journalistic integrity. I became disillusioned with the media and its descent into crass sensationalism, and I quit the paper. Writing had lost its glow—the honeymoon was over.
When I took a tutoring job to make pizza money, I discovered my true calling. It certainly wasn’t glamorous. It didn’t have the cache of being an author or the adventure of being a journalist. There was no real money to be made, but I was hooked.
Back on that day a lifetime ago when I dove headfirst into my life as an educator, I put aside my dreams of becoming a writer. Twenty-four years later I am resurfacing, having taught more than 500 children how to write. I just hope I don’t become an example of the old adage: those who can’t do, teach. I’ve done the teaching.—now it’s time to do.