Thursday, March 3, 2011
Your high school English teacher probably wanted only your final draft. Even process-based writing instructors expect the final version to represent the author’s best work: scrubbed of grammatical errors and clunkers, defined and refined in logic and narrative structure. As much as possible, the product should be perfect.
It’s no wonder that writing is so daunting for most students. The only writing that they see covered in red ink is their own. Most of the canonical books they read have been edited and revised until every warty word has been excised, leaving a deceptively smooth, unblemished sheen. But how often do students see the actual process?
Now, with 34 tenth graders coming under my charge, I’m about to teach American Literature. How can I help my future students to make meaningful connections through reading and writing?
I visited the Harry Ransom Center to study how professional writers write and in an attempt to make literature more relevant to my life. My experience led me to wonder what would happen if my students read the day-by-day slog recorded in Steinbeck’s journal while they read The Grapes of Wrath. Could the corrections, carets, and scribbles in Whitman’s proofs of Leaves of Grass bring my students closer to writing their own poetry? I imagine a student reading “Two Minutes,” a short story by 14-year-old Tim O’Brien, and saying, “Well, I could do better than that.”
Reading through Anne Sexton’s teaching materials from Wayland High School, I was struck by how difficult teaching teenagers can be, even for a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet. And yet, thumbing through her students’ poems, I was inspired. It was exhilarating to look at drafts that I wasn’t supposed to see, to gain intimate access to each author’s life and to see the students’ vital search to find their words.
Your high school English teacher also probably wanted your work to appear effortless. But exposing the hard work may be the chief power the Ransom Center holds for students: the archive reveals not just the process, but also the project of writing. Every author’s project begins with finding something worth saying to someone. The Ransom Center is a catalog of each frustrated attempt as accomplished wordsmiths struggled to write precisely what they meant.
This is the spirit that I want to bring to my classroom: that meaningful connection is possible through the reading and writing of words. For our writing to be purposeful, we must find something meaningful to say. We must have a project. What becomes clear after reading the preserved papers is that they were written by human beings for other human beings.
I hope to share with my students what I learned from my week at the Center: that the canon’s authors’ godlike craft comes not solely from the natural ability, but from hard work, and that they, my students, potential authors of great literature, have much to contribute.