What can writers bring into the classroom?

By Ian Eyres, Senior Lecturer, The Open University

What can we learn about writing from writers? Whether by ‘writing’ we mean written text (as in ‘the writing of Charles Dickens’), or the act or activity of doing writing (as in ‘the writing of David Copperfield’), writing is linked to learning: students can read, appraise and enjoy the former, but also strive to emulate the latter.

Written texts, better known in this context as literature, have long held an important place in classrooms. Teachers share their enthusiasm for the writing they enjoy, and use specific examples as models for their students to follow. One primary teacher recently told me about how she’d used sections of a book written for adults – Jamaica Inn – to illustrate how writers establish settings, for example. Many writers have told me how their own writing has been inspired by their early, enthusiastic and wide-ranging reading, and that their liking for a particular author or style of writing has helped shape the kind of writer they have become.

Arguably then, all writers teach writing, simply because their work can be read, enjoyed and imitated by those learning to read and write. This is no doubt why writers are often invited to present their own writing to audiences of school students, but we have to ask why this should be different from, or more effective than, the same work being championed by an enthusiastic reader-teacher.

Maybe it helps just to see that a beloved work has been produced by a living, breathing man or woman, perhaps the kind of person a student thinks they might one day become, or be friends with.

Perhaps the value of having access to a writer lies in the opportunity to ask about how their work comes into being. “Where do you get your ideas from?” may not be a popular question with writers, but many (most?) have quite systematic ways of dealing with what Lucy Oliver (in a previous blog post called ‘prewriting’.  Many keep notebooks for example and many stress the importance of observation.

Something else Lucy mentioned is writers’ working routines, and the relative value of inspiration and perspiration. Routines need to include ways of dealing with errors, frustrations and blind alleys – ideas that initially looked promising but end up going nowhere. More than one writer has cited the words of Samuel Beckett, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

We might want to ask writers what motivates them. Is it the desire to find and address an audience, as the poet Caroline Davies argued in response to my previous blog post, or the pleasure of finding ways of exciting suspense, anxiety, amusement, joy or other emotions? Or is it simply the work itself, and the desire to craft the best possible text, with no thought for the judgment of others? Some writers I have spoken to have echoed the spirit of Cyril Connolly’s “Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.” All these questions potentially offer learners insights which may help them develop their own practice and identity as writers.

Teachers on the Teachers as Writers programme have an exceptional opportunity to work in partnership with published authors in their classrooms.  Part of the challenge for each pair will be to identify the qualities of the author and/or authoring which they can bring onto their classroom. I for one am very much looking forward to seeing what they find, and how they use that knowledge to the benefit of the young writers at the heart of the project.

Ian Eyres
Senior Lecturer
The Open University

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