“I want to be a writer when I grow up.”
“Just when you grow up?”
“Well, like, someday”
“Do you write now?”
“Well yeah, for school and sometimes for fun.”
“Then you are already a writer, one who writes.”
I’ve had some version of this conversation with practicum students at various points over the last few years. Students are invariably surprised when I, their writing teacher, boldly declare upon them the prestigious status of Writer. Sometimes they want to argue with me using their own definition of What Being a Writer Means. It usually includes something about being older and getting published somewhere. I’m always quick to explain the word: a writer is someone who writes; therefore every student in practicum is already a writer. Our task is figure out how to be good writers.
It turns out learning how to be a good writer is much more difficult than attaining the status of One Who Writes (though with middle school and high school students sometimes even that can be a challenge). Fortunately, in my experience, every student who engages with the writing process with diligence becomes a better writer. Students learn things like how to spell and use interesting words and construct solid sentences, but the most exciting growth is when a student finally starts to figure out the truth they have been given to share with their unique voice, when they discover they actually have something to say.
It’s fairly easy to learn how to write the “correct” words, but it’s much harder to find something worth saying. In her short poem on writing, “Sand Dabs, One,” the great poet Mary Oliver writes, “The idea must drive the words. When the words drive the idea, it’s all floss and gloss, elaboration, air bubbles, dross, pomp, frump, strumpeting.” Teaching students to discover the ideas worth writing is the great accomplish of the Progymnasmata, or the classical progression of writing instruction we follow at The Academy.
The Progym gives students various forms to follow – a chreia to write about the usefulness of a quote, a confirmation to promote a story, a vituperation to blame an individual. This takes away the difficult task of organizing thoughts and allows students to focus on the content rather than the form. This forces them to focus their energy on what their main point actually is, on why someone should read their essay, on how it can benefit their readers.
This is the main work of the dialectic period. In grammar school they hopefully learn all the important mechanics necessary to communicate clearly, but in dialectic we are interested in helping them learn how to use all that knowledge to bring truth to bear on a particular subject. As they learn how to construct compelling content to fill a form, they prepare to enter rhetoric school where they will develop the (you guessed it) rhetorical skills necessary to make that argument persuasive and effective. The end result of this process is what we will celebrate this winter with the presentation of the senior capstone projects, where they will use all of their knowledge and writing skills to persuasively argue an issue close to their hearts and present their arguments to the world.
The end result is not to finally announce that our students have achieved the status of Writer but to celebrate the fact that they have toiled for years as writers and are now being recognized for the progress they’ve made and the work they’ve completed.
I leave you with the full Mary Oliver poem, “Sand Dabs, One” here below:
Lists, and verbs, will carry you many a dry mile.
To imitate or not to imitate — the question is easily satisfied. The perils of not imitating are greater than the perils of imitating.
Always remember — the speaker doesn’t do it. The words do it.
Look for verbs of muscle, adjectives of exactitude.
The idea must drive the words. When the words drive the idea, it’s all floss and gloss, elaboration, air bubbles, dross, pomp, frump, strumpeting. Don’t close the poem as you opened it, unless your name is Blake and you have written a poem about a Tyger.
by Chism Young, North Campus dialectic practicum teacher