post by Mark Overmeyer, 2018-20 Associate of The Educator Collaborative
What I Learned as a Writer in the “Real” World
Recently, I took several craft seminars and a weeklong writing intensive at Lit Fest, an annual event for writers at Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop in Denver, Colorado.
Authors from around the world led the workshops, including poet and essayist Ross Gay, poet and memoirist Helen MacDonald, novelist Sheila Heti, and essayist Melissa Febos.
It was a week filled with writing and learning. Learning is key to remaining vital as a teacher, and I believe in the power of learning beyond an educational setting. In the past, I have taken dance and art classes not because I plan a career move (trust me – that won’t happen!) – but because I wanted to learn something new. The week I spent at Lighthouse confirmed much of what I believe to be true about writing, but it also nudged me to question some of my beliefs and practices. Here are a few of my biggest takeaways:
Writing prompts can be helpful
My weeklong workshop with Ross Gay was entirely generative. For 2 and 1/2 hours each day, for 5 days, Ross provided prompted exercises to get us writing, and we had homework each night. At no time did Ross say: “You can write whatever you want to write”. In fact, at times, he gave us some very strict guidelines, including one exercise where we could use only words provided by a partner. These restrictions did not inhibit us at all. In fact, even though we sometimes expressed frustration, we were surprised by our results. Many of us found small portions of text from these exercises that can be useful to our current work as writers.
Prompts have a negative connotation in many writing classrooms, and I tried to limit their use in my own classroom when I taught full time. While I am not advocating for the use of prompts every day, I do believe we must listen to professional writers who say that prompts can support stronger writing habits. While too many forced prompts can inhibit creativity, prompts can also promote new ways of thinking. One new resource on the topic of using prompts effectively in elementary workshops is Paula Bourque’s Spark! Quickwrites to Kindle Hearts and Minds in Elementary Classrooms (Stenhouse, 2019).
Structure doesn’t mean structured
During a two-hour craft session with essayist and professor Melissa Febos, I learned about the power of using structural restrictions to generate new ideas. Melissa recommended we look carefully at several mentor texts with complex structures and then mimic the structure with an idea we have been working with in our writing. One example she provided was the use of a letter. She recommended we take one of our poems or essays and rewrite it in the form of a letter because it is one of the few forms that has a very specific audience and a very narrow lens.
When I hear the word “structure” as a writing teacher, I often think of the five paragraph essay – a very limiting form that often leads to boring writing. Melissa was encouraging us to see how existing structures can become containers for our thinking, something Katie Wood Ray has been writing about for many years and is described thoroughly in her book Study Driven (Heinemann, 2006).
All writers deserve opportunities for joy
Ross Gay told us that he spends a lot of his writing life studying joy. Even in his poems that focuses largely on his father’s death, he finds places where he can be grateful and just notice what is right with the world. While crafting essays, Melissa Febos encouraged us to find joy while determining what our essays might be about. My biggest takeaway from her workshop: Don’t even start an essay if you know what it is about. If you already know the exact direction of your essay, why write it? Febos takes her stance about essays all the way back to Montaigne, who famously described essays as a journey of thought.
My week at Lighthouse was filled with learning, and yes, joy. My writing group members and I laughed a lot – especially during the drawing exercises led by Ross Gay, and during exercises that imposed strict rules about word choice. Looking back on the week, I realize we weren’t really laughing because of discomfort: we were laughing as a result of the joy in trying something new and in accepting a challenge. I was happy the entire week. Even when members of my workshop groups shared memories of painful experiences, there was joy in the knowledge that someone else would listen. Even through our tears we found gratitude.
My week in the “real world” of a writing workshop made me think about how we can create more joy and gratitude in our writing workshops. If small moments of joy made me want to write more as an adult, how powerful would it be to find ways to make joy a common experience in our classrooms?
For some ideas on how this might look for you as a teacher, Katie Egan Cunningham’s Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness (Stenhouse) is due out in September.
Don’t miss out on the opportunity to take care of yourself as a writer and reader. For joyful reading experiences that may spark writing ideas, I can enthusiastically recommend Ross Gay’s book of poems Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (2015) and his essay collection The Book of Delights (2019).