More Englishy goodness.

I’m working my way through a stack of murder mysteries set in Minneapolis, The Sun, The Moon, and the Stars by Stephen Brust, and another writing-of-English book. The mysteries I’ll only review if I think they’re good ones. The Sun, The Moon, and the Stars has just been completed, and I need to think about it for a bit.

But the writing-of-English book is an ongoing project, so I’ll start making comments….now!

It’s called: Acts of Teaching: How to Teach Writing: A Text, A Reader, A Narrative, by Joyce Armstrong Carroll and Edward E Wilson.


This is about the shift between two different ways of teaching English to the K-12 set. The first method is called “product writing.” Loosely, this means that the focus of teaching is the end-product of writing. Teachers pass out assignments, students follow strict steps during which they are assessed on their progress according to preset goals, and the final project–each final project–is graded. The second method is called “process writing.” This means that the focus of teaching is the process of writing. “Process writing” doesn’t exclude the techniques of “product writing”; however, other techniques are also used, and the focus, like I said, is the process of writing. The authors are all in favor of process writing.

Process writing, so far, has been broken down into five aspects–these are not linear stages to be progressed through, one necessarily being completed before the next is begun, but aspects that happen in whatever manner they need to for each specific writer as necessary. The five aspects are prewriting, writing, rewriting, correcting, and contemplating. Prewriting is the process of coming up with ideas. Writing is the process of getting your ideas organized and on paper. Rewriting is the process of honing the work for your audience. Correcting is the process of clarifying the writer’s style & grammar. Contemplating is the process of stepping back from the work and looking at it critically.

Actually, I lied. Different teachers reported in here say the process is different. They all just focus on process. But that’s one of the processes, one that the authors keep coming back to.

I have a two-fold interest in this book, this type of book. First, I suspect (but I don’t know) that learning how teachers teach writing may help me write better myself, or at least give me a new way to think about the learning process involved in learning to write. Just seemed like a good idea. Second, one of the things I always have running in the back of my head (like trying to figure out a fourth spacial dimension…or hollandaise sause, so I can make myself some dang eggs benedict whenever I want…or the little connections you get between different Tom Waits albums…or the names of movie actors that Lee can never remember, like Ron Perlman and Gary Oldman..or bad puns…) is “What would I do in my ideal English class?”

My ideal English class is usually college-level. I’d rather be a professor than a teacher, for one reason only: professors get to hand out work. There’s none of this “do it in class” crap. No. Take home your assignments, and you may do them, or you may not!

Anyway. For a while the title of my class was “How not to write,” and we’d look at stuff we just couldn’t stand, and figure out why we couldn’t stand it. Part of the class would focus on things that I’d picked, and part of the class would focus on things that the students picked. I’d introduce critical theory by saying, “This is the —- theory (feminist, deconstructionist, etc), and this is why they’d hate this book (Moby Dick).”

But lately I’ve been thinking about the information in this book, and I’ve had to rethink my approach. Basically, I was just reversing everything I hated about my English classes. Protesting the things you hate is important, sure, but…it’s limited. It focuses you on the same continuum as the things you hate, you see: it doesn’t allow you the freedom to do your own damn thing. It doesn’t–Satanists take note–allow you truly to think for yourself.

Right now what I’m thinking about is a class where part of the class is focused on independent projects, and part of the class is focused on the mechanics of organizing what you’re going to write. If I had time for an upper-level class, I’d start in on topics like character, theme, etc. But this is the class I’d use to replace English 101.

–Everyone has a journal. On-line. That’s right, everybody blogs.

–The goal of the class isn’t to turn in projects on time. The goal of the class is to build a portfolio.

–The actual classes will cover various techniques to be used in fiction writing and writing in general: coming up with ideas, building an ongoing collection of ideas (I call mine the mulch pile), the process of turning ideas into writing, making writing more appealing to the reader, turning intermediate writing into a final draft, and publishing.

–Yep. People will submit. They’ll research the market and they’ll submit. Getting published is just candy.

One thing I don’t plan to do (in this hypothetical situation I couldn’t pull off right now anyway) is workshop. The dang stuff is going to be posted on the net. Comments can go there. Workshopping sucks up class time to the point where nothing gets taught. If it’s really necessary, they can have an English Lab (like Bio Lab), where they can sit down and learn how to criticize each other’s stuff. Sure, workshopping has its uses, but it’s not the damn panacea everyone seemed to think it was while I was in college.

Did I mention I’d get paid a hundred grand a year to do this?

Hm…back to the book. What have I learned so far?

I’ve been thinking about my own writing process, and lately it’s been a little too focused on coming up with something readable. Something perfect. I’m not as bad about hatching Athena full-grown from my skull as I used to be, but I don’t do as much playing and thinking as I should. For instance, motivation. That’s something to think about: why am I writing whatever it is I’m writing? I used to be all about writing for a purpose. I had things to say, and I had to say them. Now I find myself, especially on an afternoon when I’m home alone with the bebe and I don’t have any novels laying around that I’m just dying to read, hungering to write something that’ll do for other people what those novels I like have done for me.

If I’m having an ambitious afternoon, I want to write something that’s a combination of both.

Ah…Ray was sleeping on my chest for a while, but now she’s up and lusting after the keyboard. Time to go. Discretion is the better part of rambling on and on and on and on and on…