By Professor Debra Myhill, Director of the Centre for Research in Writing, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean, The University of Exeter
One recurrent theme arising from our interviews with the professional writers in our Teachers as Writers research is that writing is not easy. Many of the writers, when talking about their own writing, were very conscious of the dark moments in the garret, the private battles with the printed page, or the messiness of what they had written. The realisation that the first draft was far from a final version was common, with one writer referring to her first draft as an ‘absolutely unholy mess of stuff’, whilst for another there was a recognition that ‘for me the first draft is just not terribly enjoyable, it’s very anxious because you don’t know if you’ve got a story or not until you’ve finished it’. But these writers also shared the understanding that this is a normal part of the writing process, albeit difficult, and that it can be overcome by ‘hard slog’, ‘sheer bloody mindedness’ and the persistence to ‘just work at it and work at it and work at it’. And, of course, this idea, that writers often find writing difficult, is well-known in research about writers’ experiences: and I am always reminded of Coleridge’s observation that ‘every word, every phrase must undergo the ordeal of deliberate choice’.
In the context of our project, what is interesting about this is how this understanding is communicated in the classroom to young writers. A throwaway comment by one of the writers at one of our Continuing Professional Development days really made me think. He said something along the lines of ‘you can’t tell children just how difficult writing really is’. This comment also chimed with the writers’ views that their normal practice was to go into school and do a lively workshop which engaged children with writing and gave them something to say, and then leave. But should we avoid addressing the struggle of writing with children? In a way, their day to day experiences of writing constantly remind them it’s a struggle – be that how to hold your pencil and shape strange letters, how to manage the ending of a story, or what on earth to write about in the first place. The Arvon experience has been hugely positive in opening up children’s eyes to the possibilities of writing, sparking their imagination, and unlocking their writerly voices. With this new-found understanding in place perhaps we all need to think more about how we help children recognise that the challenges writing poses are normal and part of the process. As one writer said about his changed way of working in the classroom: ‘I’ve gone beyond the bit where it’s fun and now I’ve got to face the bit where it is just hard work’.
And, of course, the struggle is often a positive experience, leading to a deep satisfaction in the final piece of writing!
Professor Debra Myhill
Director of the Centre for Research in Writing, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean
The University of Exeter