I’ve been writing stories since middle school. They weren’t any good (and some of mine now still aren’t) but I was writing. I didn’t start caring about the craft of writing until I had stories of my own I needed to tell. My drive to master the mechanics, conventions, and forms of writing came when I had a reason to learn them.
I now write a ton: short stories, novel projects, poetry, blog posts, random snippets, essays for my masters degree, etc. A few weeks ago, I wrote an in-class essay with my AP students just to remind myself how hard it is to craft coherent thoughts in such a short space of time. In the past when I’ve come into busy times that necessitate less time writing, those muscles atrophied.
Occasionally, I’ve spoken to people that consider themselves writers but admit that they don’t read books. This is baffling; how can someone write if they don’t read? Even if their focus is screen writing, or they’re mainly interested in television-style storytelling, their output is still in words. Understanding the craft of writing is twofold: writing practice and reading input.
It occurred to me that this translates in the other direction as well. How can someone teach writing or the analysis of literature if they don’t write themselves? Not that it’s impossible, but the depth of understanding isn’t the same. When my students ask me about how I know that the author put that symbol in intentionally, I can knowledgeably say that there’s no way to accidentally put in that many cohesive references to the same object, all tied to a particular idea or theme. Strong writing does not happen by accident.
Similarly, my understanding of poetry has grown proportionally with how much poetry I’ve written. It shows me the depth of thought, the understanding of rhythm, and the dedication to word-smithing of each poet and how far I am from writing like a Mary Oliver or a Gerard Manley Hopkins. My admiration and appreciation for their work has grown because of my own fumbled attempts.
I don’t actually think it makes that much difference what we write. The process of getting thoughts, images, ideas, emotions onto paper is hard. Authors, poets, playwrights, they frequently discuss in interviews or essays how time-consuming and difficult the process is. It can be agonizing. When we only receive the end-product, we don’t appreciate the process. By experiencing the process ourselves, we better understand the magnitude of the task undergone in writing a work as seemingly simple as The Old Man and the Sea. The language is not hard, the plot is straight forward, structure is almost simplistic. My 10th grade self thought it was the dumbest book I’d ever read.
I’ve started engaging in a practice called ‘copywork’. This time-honored process was quite a common way of teaching writing. Essentially, one copies the works of great writers by hand, a few pages at a time. I was somewhat skeptical at first and skipped through the works of various science fiction authors I admired. I’d copy out a page here and another there, really getting a feel for their language. Then I started copying out The Old Man and the Sea in full. It’s spectacular. I teach it every year, I’ve spent time with this text, I’ve read it many times. And now, in copying it out, I have a whole new appreciation for how Hemingway writes. Even just a few pages in, I’ve noticed details, structures, individual words that had slipped me by in all my previous readings.
So yes, all English teachers should write. Create a short story, a poem, write an essay along with students, write an analytical piece on a work of fiction, etc. I’m most excited to teach writing when I’m fired up about my own plans. When my 10th grade Honors class participates in NaNoWriMo each year, I do it right along with them and find that this not only inspires them, but I’m simultaneously driven forward by their engagement. I can guide them in writing fiction precisely because I’ve worked on my own craft for so long. I can show them how to do great research, how to incorporate their sources well, how to analyze a quote, because that’s what I’m needing to do in my own writing.
English teachers should find time and space to write because when we’re passionate and engaged in writing, it makes our analysis of literature come more alive and our teaching of writing gains depth.