Thursday, May 10, 2012

Advice on Writing: Repost of A Writing Teacher Who Writes: A Reflection on National Poetry Month

Laura Tornello does an occasional blog post that is published on the Northern Virginia Writing Project website, generally reflecting on the teaching of writing. Her posts are informative and intriguing. Here she writes about the Poem-a-Day Challenge which a number of Write by the Rails members undertook. I'm here to tell you, cranking out a poem a day is a challenge.

Here's what Laura had to say about the project:

I don’t write poetry. My thoughts come more naturally in prose, and to write poetry is to cut. I’ve never felt comfortable with the process of constructing a poem, and more often than not, I feel like an imposter; I add some vague imagery that may or may not be symbolic, I splice my sentences at odd syntactic places to appear trendy, and ultimately I feel like what I’ve created is just severed prose. Needless to say, National Poetry Month has never been a source of festivity for me. This year, though, towards the end of March, an inexplicable force took hold of me: I would do the April Poem-A-Day Challenge. I would write thirty poems. Just the thought made me flinch, but at that point, my stubbornness wouldn’t let me back down. 

On April 1st, my pen hovered hesitantly over an expectant blank page and I wrote my first poem. On April 30th, with an odd twinge of sadness, I wrote my last poem—and over the course of that month, I rediscovered the importance of being a writing teacher who writes.

 I rediscovered the messiness of the writing process. Some of the poems I wrote are pretty terrible. Most of them, I won’t ever visit again. Overall, there are only twelve that I really like, that I would consider revising. I think this is such an important message to convey to my students—that even as someone who writes constantly, I only really like 40% of what I wrote during the month of April.  You have to work your way through a lot of tangled ideas and clumsy phrases to get to some really profound stuff. That’s just the nature of writing.

I rediscovered what it feels like to be completely outside my comfort zone. I had a lot of insecurity about form and style, and at times I felt like a fraud, as if I were wearing a sandwich board that proclaimed “NOT A POET” in large bold letters. About halfway through the month, as I struggled with a particularly uncooperative poem, I had an important realization: This is how some of my students feel when they’re working on papers for my class. I think I forget this sometimes—that just because I’ve read The Great Gatsby 800 times and can write a literary analysis paper in my sleep doesn’t mean that my students feel that same level of comfort. They’re navigating unfamiliar waters too, and I think this realization made me a stronger teacher, and most importantly, a more empathetic one.

Finally, I rediscovered the powerful (and often unexpected) connection between writing and thinking. Giving up control was difficult for me, but I tried to start writing and just let the poem take me where it wanted to. You know, in a non-hippie way—because that previous sentence made it sound like I was lighting incense and eating Kashi during this whole process. But truly, there were moments over the course of the month where I finished a poem, sat back, and thought, “Wow. Where did that come from?” Far too often, students have this perception that writing is the process of taking a fully-formed thought and translating it onto paper. It’s important for them to recognize that writing itself is a means for thinking things through and figuring out what they really want to say.

As I write this, it’s May 1st, and (I never thought I would utter this phrase), I’m in poetry withdrawal. I still don’t consider myself “a poet,” but I do know two things for certain: everything I wrote in the last month has contributed to my identity as a writer. And everything I wrote in the last month has contributed to my identity as a writing teacher.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this, Dan! I actually just found out about the poetry a day thingy today. (I write good, don't I?) Maybe I will try for June. Or maybe I will go back and look at what I did in April. I bet I wrote 30 short poems all that month.

    A writing teacher who doesn't write does get disconnected from students and from the power of writing itself. Writing makes us analyze in a different way; therefore, it makes us read the work of others in a different way. But I am preaching to the author-clergy here, aren't I?