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Learning to Write in Freedom

Learning to Write in Freedom
By Susannah Sheffer

George Dennison, author of The Lives of Children, wrote about how hard it is to observe freedom in people’s lives. “All you can see,” he said, “is people doing things...What’s visible, when things are going well, is simply activities, activities of all kinds…The real touchstone of freedom is not joyous people romping in the grass, but quality, first-rate work.”

At age fifteen, Lisa had spent years in school not believing herself capable of quality, first-rate work, especially not if the work had to be written. After some tumultuous times, including an attempt at homeschooling, a conflict with the local school district and a stressful couple of appearances in juvenile court because of it, things had finally settled down. Lisa was now homeschooling under her grandmother’s guidance, following an online high school program that was fairly traditional in its format and expectations but allowed Lisa to work at her own pace, under conditions that suited her, and with adults she chose. The trouble was that the program required several essays. As her grandmother recalls it, Lisa had always wanted to please her English teachers but had never succeeded.

“She found it difficult to put her ideas for essays on paper,” her grandmother recounts. “Although she had an amazing ability to tell stories that were creative and interesting, when it came time to write about them she hit a wall. She was so afraid of not doing it right or not pleasing her teachers or not getting a good grade. This came to a crisis when she was one day late with an essay and asked her teacher to at least read it and tell her if it was what he was looking for. He refused to, telling her this effort was not worth anything at all. At this point she froze up and was unable to write any essay for any subject. I took her out of school after her failure contributed to a downward spiral in her health. She lost thirty pounds, became very depressed and sick. I started looking for other ways to educate her and settled on an online high school education. As we went along, her health improved but her writing did not. We spent sometimes up to two hours trying to get something down on paper for her English assignments. It ended up with me frustrated and her in tears. ‘I am trying, Nana, but I don’t know what to write, or if the teacher will like it,’ is what she often said. I knew she had creative ideas inside and was determined to get them out.”

This was where I came in. When I met with Lisa for the first time and gave her a quick summary of how I imagined she felt when she tried to write, she looked back at me in quiet amazement, as if wondering how I knew. I knew because I’d seen it so many times before. Lisa was an individual with her own distinct experiences and perceptions, but her block about writing essays was more common than she knew.

“Although she had an amazing ability to tell stories that were creative and interesting, when it came time to write about them she hit a wall. She was so afraid of not doing it right or not pleasing her teachers or not getting a good grade.”

We met weekly and started out slowly, just brainstorming ideas for things Lisa might want to write about, tape recording some of her thoughts, writing back and forth to one another during the sessions, reading and talking about her poetry because that was the one area that her past school experiences seemed not to have claimed. We built some rapport and trust and circled around the essay-writing problem without yet coming at it directly.

But Lisa really did care about fulfilling the goals of her online high school program, and we couldn’t ignore that for too much longer. Several essays were due within a couple of months. I wanted to help Lisa meet that goal, but I was also thinking about something else.

I was thinking about the poet Denise Levertov’s comment about “the secret writers share”. She’s referring not to the frustration but to the joy of writing, the thing that makes it feel like “a marvelous bird alighting on your shoulder”. In my experience, that joy derives not just from getting one’s ideas out, but from figuring out how to shape them, how to make something beautiful or powerful – in other words, from the actual work of writing, the revising, rethinking, cutting, and expanding that many people would assume Lisa was not yet able to do.

This secret, this joy, was unfamiliar to Lisa because she’d never had a chance to encounter it. People who freeze at the initial “get your thoughts on paper” stage of writing often get stuck there, or are held there by well-meaning teachers who believe you have to master each sequential step fully before proceeding to the next. How could Lisa think about – why would she even care about? – revision or structure or subtle shades of meaning when she hadn’t even become comfortable generating a first draft yet?

In my quirky way, stubbornly drawing my teaching principles from what I experience as a writer rather than from anything that might be called “scope and sequence,” I wanted to offer Lisa a chance at the precise and surprising joy of sculpting a written piece. I didn’t want to assume that because she felt herself to be a beginner, still struggling to get anything at all down on paper, this seemingly more advanced joy and skill was beyond her reach.

I had used a tape recorder before with people who found it easier to generate first thoughts by talking than by writing. I would type up the transcript and let that serve as our first draft, ready for our attention. So that part of the approach was familiar to me. What I learned from Lisa was to keep using it. I learned to serve as her amanuensis (someone who writes down what another says) not just during the brainstorming stage but during the later parts of the writing process too. Instead of giving her the transcript of a tape-recorded first draft and expecting her to continue revising on paper, I sat with my hands on the keyboard while Lisa read her drafts on the screen and told me what to revise.

“Writing is about figuring out what you think, figuring out how to convey what you think, and going back – sometimes over and over again – to revise and reshape and make it better.”

What was more, Lisa could write about things she cared about, things close to her heart – her best friend’s pregnancy, the difference between the way her grandmother had raised her mother and her mother had raised her, her difficult school experiences. We were fulfilling the (luckily, rather broad) assignments of the online program, and fulfilling them with something real, something that Lisa cared about trying to say.

This was when it happened. Only when Lisa was completely free of the notion that she had to have a pen in her hand or a keyboard under her fingers did she truly begin to take off as a writer. I say this without any romanticism or indulgence toward her beginner status: When Lisa was speaking aloud, not doing the thing that most people would think looked like writing, she truly began to do the work that writers do. As she sat with me at the computer and read over the transcripts of her first drafts – the rough spill of her first thoughts – Lisa now moved paragraphs around, clarified fuzzy points, read over sentences and thought of clearer or tighter ways to phrase them. She grew able to consider a particular point and say “That’s interesting but I don’t think it belongs in this essay.” She could think about the structure of a piece and decide what worked best. It turned out that Lisa was considerably more advanced in her actual writing ability than anyone (herself included) had been able to discover up to now.

At the end of several months of our work together, her grandmother told me that Lisa had said to her, “Nana, what I write does not have to be perfect. I can just write what I think and go back and make it better later.” Exactly. Writing is about figuring out what you think, figuring out how to convey what you think, and going back – sometimes over and over again – to revise, reshape and make it better. Lisa was free now, and not just free from the beliefs and assumptions that had kept her from writing. She was free to work with skill and care and attention. Free to do the quality, first-rate work that she had been capable of all along.

Susannah Sheffer edited Growing Without Schooling magazine for many years. Her books include “Writing Because We Love To: Homeschoolers at Work” and “A Sense of Self: Listening to Homeschooled Adolescent Girls.” She works frequently with young writers, through the mail and in person. Learn more at her website.

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