As a past creative writing major and Writer’s March guest blogger and participant, the last few years have been a fascinating, vexing, and many times defeating redefinition of my relationship with writing. When I was an undergraduate and asked why I write, the reasons were somewhat self-centered. They had to do with my own parsing of the world, my own relationships, my introversion and anxiety, my penchant for escapism. Somewhere in there, I had an understanding that other people might want to read my stories and that this might contribute to some sort of universal empathy and understanding of others, but ultimately, it was just about me. I enjoyed writing, I was good at it, and it made me feel slightly less crazy than not writing did.
As I matured (I guess…or something like that…) those reasons just didn’t hold enough water for me to keep writing consistently, and without being conscious of it, I began to reframe the act of writing as something that had a lot less to do with me as an individual and more about the collective stories and ideas that writing could manifest throughout the world.
Last year, I started a master’s program in special education, and this year I began teaching high school students with learning disabilities, emotional disorders, and behavioral difficulties. There is a high level of poverty and trauma at my school. Most of my students read at an early elementary grade level and struggle to write more than a few sentences at a time. Their academic skill deficit is a challenge, and lots of time and energy goes into the basics of reading fluency and writing mechanics, but what is heart-breaking and what is least likely to be mediated, is that they hate it. They absolutely hate reading and writing. And they are convinced that these are worthless skills that they will never have to use after they get out of school.
In one of my master’s classes this semester, we are reading a short book called “Faking It” by Christopher Lee, someone who has severe oral and written language deficits. For one of “us”, people who have studied the syntax and semantics of beautiful prose, the writing is pretty awful, but the story is so important. We almost never get to hear from people with learning disabilities because they don’t write down their stories. Lee describes writing when he was younger as feeling like a never-ending, horizontal spelling test. It wasn’t until his freshman year of college that he realized that writing was about communication, not just spelling and mechanics. “Writing is beautiful,” he says. “It can express the depths of a person’s soul. It is a way of talking without opening the mouth. Students with learning disabilities need to experience this.”
Why are we so bad at teaching that it takes some students decades to realize that reading and writing are about communicating with one another?
In my class, writing prompts are always fairly open ended and almost always ask for personal opinion, response, and experience. Little by little, the students can be coaxed to write half a page or so, to tell a small piece of their stories, stories that we all need to know. For these writing exercises, I never correct mechanics or spelling, I only respond to the content, and it is mostly through these bits and pieces that I feel I know any of my students at all.
I won’t go into any detail about good educational pedagogy, how reading and writing fiction builds empathy, how important it is for people who are disabled, low-income, minority, or marginalized to tell their stories and how this can be a revolutionary act, or how our current political climate demands this more than ever, but imagine all these things floating before you and the shape of the constellation they make. This is why we write.