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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Warning! Warning! Rant Below...

The ability to write doesn’t come naturally—or supernaturally—to anyone. Despite the myths, one’s ability to write well isn’t created in luck. I doubt that it's a trait acquired through inheritance of the "writing gene," either. I'm not a geneticist, but I'm pretty sure that the "writing gene" is fictional. If this gene does exist, then I didn't inherit it, and I've never met anyone that has. Of course, writing's more difficult for some than it is for others—yet, I believe that putting one’s thoughts onto paper isn’t an easy process for anyone. I'm convinced that this "writing gene" is pure myth, a myth that's very popular and very dangerous. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve a student come into a session saying something similar to, "I’m a _________major…so, writing just doesn’t come natural for me." Statements like this one bother me a lot, and always make me wonder—does writing really come naturally for anyone? I’m an ___English___ major, yet writing, most certainly, does not come naturally to me. On the contrary, learning to write effectively has been one of the most challenging tasks that I’ve encountered. In fact, I chose to major in English, ironically, because I wasn't a "natural" writer. Writing’s something that I learned to enjoy, and I desired to get better at it. If I had believed in this "gene" myth, I have no idea where I'd be now.

How do I bust this myth? Is it my responsibility? Should it be?

Unfortunately, I’m not as theatrical (or as awesome) as Adam or Jaime, but I do believe that busting this particular myth is possible. When students muster-up their courage and finally enter the Center asking for help, I want them to walk away from a session with me possessing something tangible. I want them to leave with something they will always have. I want them to leave with not only their initial questions answered but also a heightened sense of what they're doing correctly—but how in the heck do I do that? Is it possible?

It's important that students are made aware of their strengths. So often students are being told only what they're doing incorrectly; therefore, many students envision their writing ability colored exclusively with red ink. As I stated earlier, I chose to major in English because I am not a "natural" writer—writing just happens to be something that I enjoy doing, and it's something that I’m passionate about. I didn't always feel this way, though. It took a special fifth-grade teacher to ignite the love of writing within me. One brief, positive comment changed my entire outlook on writing—Wow, you’re really great at descriptions—was, literally, all it took. Before that comment, writing only consisted of grammar and check marks. It was only after I heard those words that the negative stuff ceased to matter anymore; after all, I was great at descriptions.

I do think that anyone can learn to write well. Like most everything else in life, writing's a learned process—a process that anyone, skilled in any discipline, can learn. Everyone's different, and everyone's going to have different writing experiences—what's key to writing success, though, is to never give-in to self-doubt. Self-doubt is natural, yes, but it’s something that can be overcome; perhaps, this is why the "writing gene" myth is such a dangerous one. This myth tells students who aren't "naturally" skilled at writing—students like myself—that they'll never, ever, ever be good writers. You see, if a writer does believe in this myth, then that writer probably believes that he or she will never be a "writer". This myth obviously smothers potential for many students to realize their own writing ability. The fact that this happens, that this myth is held as fact, is very, very sad to me.

Well, I’ve blathered on and on about this myth, but I still haven’t got anywhere near finding a way to show students how false it really is. Sorry! But I have to ask: have you ever had a student that held similar beliefs? Have you found ways to bust it for them? This subject’s obviously something that really bothers me, and I suppose I was just wondering if it bothered any of you, too…

10 comments:

  1. Definitely. A danger of this myth is that it both downplays the struggles that "natural" writers face, and obliterates any hope for "unnatural" writers. (It also makes us use words like "natural" and "unnatural" which don't fit into a social constructionist point of view).

    Something I do with a lot of students is to empathize, and explicitly tell them where and when I struggle in writing. Often, if they view themselves as "unnatural" writers, I assume they feel that I, as a tutor, must be a "natural" writer. Hearing about my failures and struggles seems to lift their spirits, and it also lets them know that writing is never easy but if they're struggling then they're on the right track.

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  2. Yeah, when hear someone one say that they're not a natural writer, and therefore will never be able to write well, I share an experience or two of my own, as well. It seems to help, sometimes.

    I am alwast astonshed, though, at how many people actually believe that they're incapable of being good at writing...it's just so untrue.

    Thanks for the response, Andrew!

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  3. Alisha, I love your rant. During my senior seminar class we read Stephen King's book titled On Writing (great read by the way). He basically argues against your rant; he says something along the lines of a decent writer can't become a great writer or even a bad writer a good one. I adamantly disagreed with King on this point. Like you, "I do think that anyone can learn to write well. Like most everything else in life, writing's a learned process—a process that anyone, skilled in any discipline, can learn. Everyone's different, and everyone's going to have different writing experiences—what's key to writing success, though, is to never give-in to self-doubt." Of course you can learn to be a good writer.

    That being said, I do think that some people are just "naturals." All people benefit from writing practice and confidence, but some people will have an easier time writing well than others. Some people are better at music, at drawing, at math, at mountain climbing, etc. Yes, we can all educate ourselves, practice, and become great at many things, but some things we will just be naturally better at than others.

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  4. Ha! Tiffany--It's so funny that you'd bring up "On Writing." I am currently reading King's book in my Senior Seminar, too. I know the exact passage that you're talking about, and when I read it, I thought, "Well, that's complete bull!" Still love the book, though. I recommend it, too!!

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  5. Alisha,

    I look at writing as a muscle. Every person has the muscle and can use it. While some can build and tone the muscle faster, that does not mean the rest of us cannot write, just that we have to work a little harder at it.

    While it looks like some people are naturals, I know that the rest of us can become better if we want to and dedicate ourselves to building and toning.

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  6. Thanks everyone for your thoughtful feeback. Thanks for reading the (weird) post, too!

    :)

    Alisha

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  7. Galwanizernia9:16 AM

    I like this blog :)
    I read every post.

    Regards from Poland.

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  8. I'm torn on this particular topic because I think that despite agreeing that the "good writer gene" is a myth, there is something to be said about the truth that can be encased within the myth. Like Alisha said, some people do take to writing faster than others. Whether it is a genetic trait passed down from parents (which I think it could be, since writing is just one skill out of thousands people could have or be born with a natural proclivity to), or something that we start learning in the womb, the fact remains that some writers, given a set amount of time to write something, will write more and at a higher quality than other writers. All we can do at the writing center is put writing out there as a possibility for those who choose to embrace it.

    Most of us would agree that Ernest Hemingway was a very good writer. Most of us would agree that F. Scott Fitzgerald was also a very good writer. But Hemingway would disagree with anyone who said that he was a better writer than Fitzgerald. Hemingway wrote in letters and even in some fiction about Fitz's "wasted talent" and that Fitz was a much better "natural" writer than himself. In fact, much of the reason Hemingway and Fitzgerald eventually had a falling out was due to Hemingway's disdain for Fitzgerald's inability to stay disciplined with his writing. Hemingway worked his butt off to become the writer he became and killed himself when he couldn't do it anymore. Fitzgerald, in his essay "The Crack Up," even discusses how his own talent started to dry up and how what used to be easy for him suddenly became excruciatingly difficult.

    Obviously, both of them put in the work to create enduring pieces of writing. However, I have to admit that no amount of extremely hard work would enable some of my past students (I'm referring mostly to those I taught in the Washington State Penitentiary) to produce anything close to what Fitzgerald or Hemingway produced.

    So how does this relate to the writing center? I think it is important to realize that many people come to the writing center to do the best they can for a particular assignment, or even throughout their entire college career. They will become better writers as a result. However, some will latch on to the ideas much more quickly and put them to use more effectively. We just need to remember not to try to make them into Hemingways or Fitzgeralds or even Mike Mattisons.

    I like writing, and I like teaching writing, but I don't think that writing is any more important to people's lives than, say, the ability to rebuild an engine or sew or play basketball really well. All these talents take practice to improve and could provide a living and a passion for those who embrace them and try to improve upon them. At the writing center, I don't think we need to be too hard on ourselves if someone who really doesn't like writing and isn't good at it doesn't become good at it even after a few sessions.

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  9. Funny picture, Greg! I do agree with you that some people have an easier time writing than others. I do think that it's something that some people really dislike and some people really love.

    I am not fond of math--I hate it, actually. I don't like it because it's difficult for me and it takes a lot more time, for me, to do than say...writing. But I know that in attributing my difficultly with math to a lack of the "math gene" I would be doing myself a great injustice. I can understand--an eventually pass--math, it just takes time and dedication.

    I just wish there was a way to convince people that don't have an uncanny "natural" ability to write that they can be as good as they want to be. And nothing's really stopping them from getting that "A" or writing a convincing argument.

    They just have to put the work in.

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  10. Alisha, I dig your comments, and I agree for the most part, except on one important issue. You say that a writer who doesn't have the natural inclination to writing "can be as good as they want to be." I am going to use a sports comparison to discuss this comment. I love basketball, and I worked really hard at getting better in high school. Yes, I could have worked harder. I would have loved to have been good enough to play in college and in the pros, but my physical make-up makes that impossible. There is also something in me that makes it so I do not make no-look passes. I don't anticipate as well on defense as I'd like to. I don't always know how to drive to the hoop effectively. And I sincerely believe that no amount of hard work could have propelled me to a professional career. So, I don't think it was possible for me to ever be "as good as I want to be."

    I am not saying this to be a poopypants about encouraging writers to get better. I truly believe that the hard work I put in on the court has made basketball something that is more enjoyable for me, and I am obviously better at it than if I had never played. I just think the idea that anyone can be as good a writer as they want to be may not be possible for most people. I just read some essays by E.B. White yesterday, and he mentioned, a few times, that he condsiders most of his writing failures. Hemingway and Orwell frequently said the same thing. So, if those guys failed, where the heck are we at on the failure scale?

    Those of you reading this who are familiar with Kurt Vonnegut could look at his character Kilgore Trout as a good (albeit fictional) example of someone who, no matter how hard he tries and how much he writes, cannot fully become the writer he wants to be. But if I remember correctly, Trout writes because he feels the need to, the compulsion to engage in the act of writing. As a result, he has probably become as good as he can be, and he at least seems partially satisfied. In my opinion, that should be the goal of every writer, regardless of success or failure. We just gotta keep on truckin'.

    Beware: gratuitous list of cliches to follow. Do not read unless you have the time:

    We just gotta keep on keepin' on. We just gotta git 'er done. We just gotta keep on milkin' that cow (maybe that's not a cliche. I might have just made it up). We just gotta keep on givin' a hunnerd and ten percent. We just gotta keep our eyes on the prize, gotta stay focused and stay within ourselves. We gotta leave it all in the writing center (or field).
    I'm out. Peace.

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