Monday, September 28, 2009

On nurturing young writers

I've been asked to take on a writing student. I have to admit, I'm ambivalent. On the one hand, the request reminds me of the way Madonna asked an Olympic dressage rider I know to teach her how to ride - honey, you're asking a professional to take time out of their busy schedule to teach the basics to a beginner? It's like asking Yo-Yo Ma to teach your child to play cello. On the other hand, if the kid has talent, it's an exciting prospect. But I feel like the situation is being forced on me by a pushy parent who doesn't understand that what a young writer or artist really needs is space not instruction.

Don't get me wrong. I teach creative writing to 4th and 5th graders. I love the enthusiasm, the crazy way kids put stories together, and I LOVE it when I encounter those kids who innately know how to put stories together and show talent. It's exciting to hear someone experimenting with their voice, finding the ideas they want to explore. It's also exciting to work with young writers who literally can't stop putting words down on paper, to watch them fall in love with the process.

What I think a lot of parents don't understand is that artists flourish best in conditions of benign neglect. Encouragement, yes, but encouragement in terms of, "that's really interesting" or "I like how you wrote about that, it really painted a vivid picture in my head," not "oh, my God, you're the next James Joyce! Let's go find you an agent." We live in an era of hyper-talented kids, or at least parents who are willing to shell out a great deal of money for lessons of all types in the hopes that their child will become a towering genius. I'm not saying that this is what's going on here, but I see it a lot, especially in San Francisco where so many people have more money than they know what to do with. And sometimes, it's coming from a good place. Parents want to give their kids opportunities they never had.

Based on what the mom's said, I think she might be disappointed in what I'll do with her child if I take him on. She said he writes a lot and it's all over the place and she'd like him to learn structure. For me, that's exactly what his stories should be doing. They should be all over the place. One thing I've learned after six years in the classroom is that I hear different things in the writing than the teachers (and probably the parents) do - it's one of the reasons the teachers like me in the classroom. I'm not listening for grammar, correcting spelling, or even hoping for logical progression in the pieces. On the contrary, the pieces that seem like they're all over the place are the ones that I like the best. One of the most exciting pieces I've heard from one of my students was NOT the best written - it was all over the place, it changed character names, it changed tenses, in terms of what teachers generally look for, it was awful. But what I heard was a story beginning to order itself on the page - the tense changes, those were the shifts a writer makes as his or her ear learns to hear the story being told in their head. I've had other students feel as if they've failed to do the assignment correctly because their writing makes no sense, but when they read it out loud, I hear a juxtaposition of images and information that borders on poetry - it doesn't make sense as a logical progression, but as true writing, it's beautiful.

To me, the danger comes when a child produces a few pieces like this and starts being pushed into thinking of him or herself as a writer, or the parent or teacher starts critiquing the work - saying what's good or bad. It's way too early for that. Way too early even for some of us who've been writing for years. Only the artist knows how close they're getting to what's in their head, to what's in their heart. The best a teacher can do is provide the way to get there, show road maps, expose the student to other writers or artists who's work may be of interest. But never, never judge the product.

Benign neglect - the work always knows what it needs. The best a parent or teacher can do is help the student listen to the work deeply enough to hear it.

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