What we talk about when we talk about writing

By Anthony Wilson, Senior Lecturer, Graduate School of Education, University of Exeter

The more I talk about writing with students, teachers, colleagues and other writers, the less I am sure that we are all speaking about the same thing. If I am on the phone to poet Cliff Yates, for example, whom I have known and been talking to about poetry for years, we soon slip into a kind of shorthand about reading and writing poetry that may be indecipherable to anyone who is not familiar with contemporary poetry and poetics.

The same is true when I swap notions about development in poetry writing with another friend and colleague, Sue Dymoke. As with Cliff, even though we have been having this conversation on and off for more than fifteen years, it can still feel as if we are dealing in pure abstraction, our ideas tantalisingly out of reach. I have had this same feeling at conferences; in lecture theatres, seminars and workshops; in audiences of hundreds to mere handfuls; and on listening to beginner-writers and the famous alike…

I noticed it again last week when speaking with some primary age students about what they have been learning about improving their writing as part of the Teachers as Writers project. While nearly all of them stated that their writing had ‘got better’, they found it very hard to say in what way, and to determine how they knew this. Part of me was surprised. I knew how hard their teachers had been working to equip them with a vocabulary about making and reflecting on their writing which was not just regurgitation of what Teresa Cremin has called ‘policy diktats’.

As I made my way home I wondered if it was really that simple. We know from Teresa’s ideas about how writing and writers are positioned in schools (for example by policy, by Ofsted); and from Debra Myhill’s search for ‘subject knowledge for writing’, that talking about writing, whatever our age and experience, remains as complex as ever.

Some of the students I spoke to gave a shrug when I asked them to say how their writing had improved. But know it they did. Most tellingly, some described it in terms of feelings. It had been fun, they said. They were enjoying it, they said. It reminded me of what US poet John Ashbery once said in reply to an interviewer who asked him why he wrote: ‘Because I want to.’ Sometimes the best answers are the simple ones.

Anthony Wilson
Senior Lecturer, Graduate School of Education
University of Exeter

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