Call yourself a writer?

By Ian Eyres, Senior Lecturer, The Open University

Mostly, it seems to me, that people don’t. Those who earn a living from writing are generally more than happy to claim the title, but others, including many who teach writing, even if they do a lot of writing themselves, prefer not to make that claim. They might be willing to admit ‘dabbling’ or to being a ‘dormant writer’ or that they’d like to write a novel ‘one day’, if they get the chance. Some are prepared to count themselves as writers in the past. But maybe because it feels like a demand to be counted alongside Shakespeare, Dickens and J.K. Rowling, most resist any invitation to count themselves as currently among their number.

Several reasons have been advanced why writing teachers should be writers themselves. The most obvious is the idea that teachers need to be able to do the thing they are teaching. A writer will have had a lot of practice in dealing with the elements of writing, from spelling and handwriting to plotting and structuring, finding ways to express elusive ideas and feelings and managing process elements and their own working routines. A teacher who has engaged fully with the writing process will have a deeper understanding of its demands and difficulties and this experience can be called on when young writers are having problems of their own. Moreover, given that, as Teresa Cremin argued a few weeks ago, writing is an emotionally demanding business, then writer-teachers are best placed to empathise with the agonies and ecstasies of composition, and give appropriate support at appropriate times. At the most basic level, writer-teachers are not asking students to do something they haven’t done themselves.

In most, if not all of these ways, writing teachers routinely accept many elements of writerly identity for themselves. Theoretical approaches to learning which focus on identity (e.g. community of practice), see learning not as a matter of acquiring skills but of becoming the kind of person who uses those skills to take an appropriate part within a community. Children learning to write are therefore, becoming writers. In large part they learn from the mature and immature writers around them, including their teacher, through participation. This understanding of learning entails an acceptance that we all have complex and multiple identities which respond and adapt to context and which are growing and developing all the time. The learner’s writer identity grows, but since they are learning many things all the time, it is also part of their identity as a member of the school community, as an educated person, as a citizen and so on.  This is, of course, as true for teachers as it is for students.

As Teresa explained, teachers began their work on the Teachers as Writers project with different degrees of assurance as writers. As they have explored ways of integrating elements of writer identity in their own classroom, my strong impression is that their confidence to see themselves as writers has increased along with their willingness to fold this aspect of their identity into their pedagogy. And somewhere along the way the binary distinction between ‘writer’ and ‘not a writer’ becomes irrelevant.

Ian Eyres
Senior Lecturer
The Open University

1 thought on “Call yourself a writer?”

  1. Well said! In my experience one of the most powerful thing about an Arvon week is that we consider all participants as writers. We often hear the feed back that “It was wonderful to be among like-minded people and to have felt that I was a writer for the week – it gave me such confidence.” Arvon believes that we should all have the opportunity to express ourselves through the medium of creative writing. As someone who has been on an Arvon course I can honestly say that by the end of the week I did believe I could write and therefore was a writer. Most importantly I think what that means is that I and others who attend an Arvon course feel that our writerly voice is heard and that it is valid. This is so important for those who teach writing and ultimately of course for those being taught for that sense of validation and self expression is crucial to the developing mind and personality of a young person. As a mother of a nearly 9-year-old I know that encouraging my daughter to write when she has something important she wants to say but is not sure how to say it, really helps her know that there is a place she can go to where her thoughts and ideas can be held and a space for figuring things out. Yes we chat (a lot!) but there is something about the writing down that honours ideas and thoughts in a very magical and transformative way.

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