Ideas in (E)Motion

By Professor Debra Myhill, Director of the Centre for Research in Writing, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean, The University of Exeter

One element of the ‘Teachers as Writers’ project is interviewing professional writers about their own experiences and practices in writing, principally to help us think about the synergies and dissonances between these writers’ experiences and those of teachers and young people in school. One of the joys of these conversations is hearing the diversity that is evident in ways of being a writer: there is no ‘right way’, no toolkit or checklist for success, but more the growing of an identity as a writer and greater self-reflection on both your writing and how you write – a ‘becoming’ as a writer.

I’d like to tease out one thing that several writers talked about in these interviews – the salience of ‘the idea’ that underpins the writing. These writers talked about the impossibility of writing without a driving idea motivating the direction of the writing; about how they as writers had to feel something or care about the idea; and about how the idea could sometimes be captured very quickly, but at other times was slow to crystallise into concreteness.

Their reflections reminded me of my own Masters dissertation which I called ‘Finding a Voice’ and which looked at writing poetry. One thing I read at the time, which I have rarely drawn on since, was Robert Witkin’s book ‘The Intelligence of Feeling’ (1974), which considered the role of creative arts in education. The writers’ emphasis upon the importance of the impelling idea behind their creative writing reminded me of Witkin’s concept of the ‘sensate impulse’, which is the initial motivating feeling that there is the germ of an idea or emotion waiting to be cultivated. Witkin suggested that the creative act is made up of this sensate impulse, which is then expressed in a creative medium (poetry, art, sculpture). This results in a creative outcome where that initial sensate impulse is realised in what he calls a ‘feeling-form’. Although Witkin’s terminology is rather idiosyncratic, what it does capture is the significance of the affective in being creative, as well as the struggle to find a voice.

Witkin also suggested that teachers of writing paid more attention to the product than the ideas and the feelings which are the creative energy behind the writing. Of course, writing in 1974, Witkin’s comments pre-date the emphasis on processes approaches to writing, the introduction of the National Curriculum, and national testing. So how different is it now? How important are children’s ideas for writing in the classroom? What I do often see, perhaps especially in primary schools, are creative ways into writing, supporting young writers in generating ideas, and using images, drama, artefacts as engaging starting points. I think there is little doubt that teachers want to help students have something to say. But the writers’ comments about the potency of that core idea made me wonder if as a teacher myself and as an observer of many writing lessons, if we really give that core idea space… voice… agency … life?

Professor Debra Myhill
Director of the Centre for Research in Writing, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean
The University of Exeter

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