By Teresa Cremin, Professor of Literacy in Education, The Open University
Our Teachers as Writers research reveals the highly personal nature of much writing. Threaded through our data from the Arvon residential we can see a strong sense of ‘writing from the heart’. In some ways this not surprising; we know that writers draw on their lives and as Berlie Doherty observed many years ago, ‘fiction is a combination of I remember and let’s pretend’. But it wasn’t just anecdotes of life that the Arvon tutors Alicia Stubbersfield and Steve Voake shared in the workshops and tutorials; they also voiced their views and values, both in response to literature and in conversational dialogues around the teachers’ own compositions. Their comments reflected the personal dimension of writing, its connection to the writer, to voice and ownership. The teachers were frequently invited to look back and remember; to lean on their lives as a rich resource and they recalled and re-voiced tales and incidents related to (for example) family practices around names and naming, their memories of childhood, old school chums, particular pieces of clothing and their own, their parents’ or grandparents’ homes.
Additionally, as part of the extended process of writing in short periods of supported freewriting (or ‘Just Write’ as we’ve called it on this project) the teachers were given space and time to let their thoughts and emotions surface and to commit these to paper without fear of evaluation or an expectation they would be shared. (For more detail on Just Write see Debra Myhill’s recent blog). As they did so it appeared they brought to mind a sense of themselves, past and present; they regularly chose to write about issues close to their hearts. Myriad memories surfaced, often for the first time in years. Some were painful, including broken relationships and marriages, the death of loved ones (young and old), moving house, and bullying. Others were more positive, including pregnancy, weddings, family events and past and present friendships. Many were marked by a strong sense of place, all were taken seriously and in the process the teachers re-viewed, re-voiced and probably reconstructed their lives in different ways.
As humans we are all storytellers and story makers. We make sense of our lives by telling ourselves stories of our past and possible futures; as Barbara Hardy (1968) famously noted narrative ‘is not to be regarded as an aesthetic invention used by artists to control, manipulate and order experience, but as a primary act of mind transferred to art from life’. Arguably writing in whatever form is an act of self-identification that echoes history and is linked to one’s life as well as the biographies of others. In recognising that writing is a form of identity exploration, (implicitly or explicitly), and an opportunity for self-expression, we can come to appreciate the value of ‘writing from the heart’ as a means of creating and expressing meaning and making sense of life. Such writing can offer the writer a deep sense of satisfaction and we certainly documented this (and experienced it ourselves) at Totleigh Barton.
In school however I doubt we offer young writers enough opportunities for ‘writing from the heart’. Do we enable them to Just Write and in the process build from and link to their lived experience as a way of energising writing and finding a voice? Of course Just Write is not an end in itself, but the memories and ideas triggered in this time can be revisited and serve as a resource for writing; clay that can be remoulded and reshaped according to the author’s emerging intentions. Caught up in our attempts to cover a range of genre, to embed grammatical knowledge and help children achieve their targets, we may be side-lining the beating heart of writing – the exploration of self- and may need to remind ourselves that young writers need rich opportunities (and explicit permission?) to draw on their reservoirs of life experience, sense of place and commitment to and interest in particular issues. As Michael Morpurgo observes ‘We are what we write. I think even more than we are what we read’.
Professor of Literacy in Education
The Open University