Unnatural Acts: Realizations about Writing Instruction
I am in a play. It’s an Avondale Schools staff and alumni production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. My role is Doc Gibbs. I have never acted or been part of theater company, but I was asked by a colleague to take a risk and show my students I wasn’t afraid to step outside the usual role of teacher. I was intrigued. I accepted the invitation.
Yes, teaching can be a kind of theater, but not like this. I walk on stage and say things that someone else wrote. I move in ways meant to suggest this character is me. The director is gently nudging my performance in ways that help me communicate who this character is–what he feels when he doesn’t say what he feels. The director is giving me things to do with my hands so I won’t keep touching my face, telling me where to look and how to stand so the audience can see what I’m doing. It feels odd…unnatural.
Writing is also an unnatural act. Human beings have a voice box that evolution has designed to create speech. It’s unique to us. We have no such organ designed for writing. Speech is natural; writing is not. I encountered this idea in a piece by Dylan B. Dryer, a professor at the University of Maine. He contends that when measured against the naturalness and ease of speech, writers tend to judge their efforts harshly. This idea was banging around in my head when I took up the script of Our Town to learn my lines.
In Act One, my character, Doc Gibbs, has two scenes with boys. He teases the paperboy in one and later leads his son George to feel guilty that a chore he should be doing is being done by his long suffering mother. In real life, I am the father of two boys, so this scene should feel natural. I’ve both teased and guilted my boys. But, as I rehearsed the lines and blocked out the scene, it felt awkward. A natural conversation becomes unnatural when spelled out and scripted. Shouldn’t acting be easier? Am I being too hard on myself here?
For years I approached teaching writing as though it were natural, as natural as speaking. I exposed students to “good writing,” provided models and rubric, and gave instruction. But the idea at the core was that the ability to write well was buried somewhere inside of my students and by my efforts, it would be awakened–this dormant, but natural, ability. After all, they can speak in sentences and that skill developed because they were spoken to, or were near other speakers. They learned by osmosis or proximity. The same should hold for the written word. I thought good writing would rub off on my students the way good or bad habits of speech do. I considered writing a natural act, and I taught it that way. To be fair, this is how I was taught. Some of my students did become good writers, but most didn’t. They didn’t simply move from speaking to writing with a bumpy transition period. It was frustrating for them and for me.
I wanted to be a better teacher, so I started working through different approaches and models. I pieced things together, tried, and failed and attempted to learn from my efforts. Gradually, I got better, but when I encountered the idea of writing as unnatural it crystallized for me. Of course my early efforts were misguided. My expectations were based on a false premise. Writing habits aren’t something my students could naturally adopt because writing is unnatural. Before I came to this idea, I looked at writing the way I might’ve looked at something natural, say walking. My students needed needed help standing: so I gave them a framework to lean on, the 5 paragraph essay, until they got steady. They leaned on these complicated rubrics and paragraph models that looked like a set of Ikea instructions. But their writing was mechanical and clumsy and bore no resemblance to the writing we read and they liked.
When children first begin walking, their motion is graceless and jerky. But at some point it becomes natural and fluid. They don’t think about it. The gait is natural and no one can say when this happens. I was waiting for that same natural transition in my students’ writing, but it rarely came. Most of them continued to lean on the frameworks I’d given them, and as a result, their writing was mechanical, clumsy, and lacking voice. When I stripped those crutches away, expecting the transition from mechanical to fluid, they fell and got frustrated. Writing isn’t like walking or speaking. I needed to think of it as unnatural, like dancing or singing, where the moves and techniques are broken down and rehearsed until they become, not natural but second nature.
Realizing that writing is not natural changed the way I approach teaching it. It isn’t an ability to be awakened any more than a father’s ability to talk to his son. It is a habit that is developed. With this in mind, I find it easier and more natural that we should have to work so hard at writing and teaching writing. My students and I participate in the unnatural act of writing together. I keep a writer’s’ notebook and write with them, sharing my own frustrations with this unnatural activity. Unnatural activities have to be made less uncomfortable and that can happen by simply acknowledging the difficulty, not from without as a “teacher” of writing, but as member of the struggling writing community. It involves taking risks by making our thoughts and habits public. In this way, acting and writing feel oddly similar. I didn’t know I touched my face when I was nervous until I had to communicate a character to an audience from the stage, and I didn’t notice my love of alliterative language until a reader of my writing pointed it out to me. Turns out, both habits are distracting.
It’s my job as a teacher to take this act of writing and help my students see the small moves inside of it. Writing doesn’t have to be a big frightening act. It can be a series of small decisions about what word to choose or where to break a line or the choice to hint at something rather than say it outright. It isn’t easy. It isn’t natural, but as we uncover ways to break down the discomfort and pursue goals with our writing, it gradually becomes a habit.
Rick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project at Michigan State University concentrated on improving writing and peer feedback and has presented at the national Advanced Placement convention and the National Council of Teachers of English convention. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.