How do I Write? – NVWP Summer Institute – Day 3 pt 1

July 8th

We begin our demo lessons with Sarah Baker.


How Do I Write? (Let me write/talk/draw/share the ways!)

Sarah begins reminding us about the disparity between the standardized writing process we require of our students (outline! draft! revise! edit! publish!). Sarah is, among other things, a college professor who teaches mainly online classes. She works with older, often international students who might be a little removed from their last classroom experience. Many of these individuals bring a sense of shame and guilt around writing. Whether doing it, sharing it, etc. It’s like she’s seeing the rotten fruits borne from over a decade of deficit-style writing instruction.

Writing is about decision making. But if you don’t even know who you are as a writer, if you haven’t thought about it before, how do you know who you are as a writer and what choices you need to make?

Quickwrite: Write three adjectives that describe your attitude toward writing in an academic environment.


We then share out our words. It becomes abundantly clear that most of us harbor attitudes of varying levels of negativity about academic writing.  One of her points here is that writing carries a big affective component. It’s not just something you do. Writing is a cyclical, two-way street of push and pull. Discovering and dampening. Well, this is probably a false dichotomy. Perhaps writing is best imagined as a rhizomatic process, a shooting out of seeds to see what grows. A constant process of becoming.

So don’t just start by teaching writing process. We first have to find out what’s at stake for the students. What skin is in the game.

She begins with explaining the Literacy Narrative assignment, a story of how you learned to read and write and how those experiences and environments shaped who you are. True to the inquiry process, students immerse themselves before writing their Literacy Narratives (Katie Wood Ray would call this, ‘writing under the influence’). She passes out a handful of pieces about writing processes. Here are a couple of examples every writing teacher should be familiar with (I’m only familiar with the first two):

Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge: Roles and the Writing Process – Betty Flowers

Flowers breaks down the writing process into four stages. The Madman is full of ideas. He writes energetically and perhaps sloppily, often gets carried away by intense emotions. The Architect reads the “wild scribblings” of the Madman and figures out what’s useful and what should be jettisoned. Her job is to select and arrange into something approximating a sensical draft. The Carpenter nails together paragraphs and ideas into logical sequences. When the Carpenter is done, the essay should be fairly “smooth and watertight.” Last is the Judge. The judge comes around to inspect punctuation, spelling, grammar, etc. All of the details the Madman isn’t concerned with, or the architect who has organized them, , or the carpenter who’s fixed them all together. Younger teachers might want to have kids come in and dress the part. This reinforces the idea that you should only wear one of these hats at a time.
Shitty First Drafts – Anne Lamott

This amazing essay talks about how important (and necessary! redundant?) it is to write really shitty first drafts. Lamott aims to remove the mystique from the writing process. There’s nothing more to say. Ignore this article at your own peril.

Sarah has us freewrite (Elbow freewriting vs. the quickwrite) on the following prompt without looking at what we’re writing.

Freewrite: What animal is your writing? Or what type of animal does your writing want to become?

  1. Write whatever comes up she says. Now I understand how daunting a task this can actually be. To write without stopping. To write without letting the judge or the inner critic come in. Think think Anderson, don’t stop writing. To act as if there’s some sort of invisible yet tyrannical connection between the fingers and the brain. Whatever sy, wait, I just realized I haven’t done anything to answer the question. Good lord. What type of animal is my writing? Some sort of manic sloth, maybe? A creature that moves incredibly slowly while containing within it an entire universe of life forms. A writing process marked by both slow deliberation and the interconnection of a multitude of ideas and forms and connections.

I love this idea that writing is its own thing, btw. A spawn set forth by the maniacal workings of a pen.

Then she has us do another freewrite.

Freewrite: Who are the characters in your head?

Ok. Well, I’m actually now stuck on the idea of whether or not these are Elbowian freewrites or more general quickwrites. I’m going to approach this one more as a quickwrite, with a little purposeful deliberation in the gaps between words and sentences. The characters in my head. The Tyrant is probably the strongest character. Everything must be perfect. Rule the narrative with an iron fist. The other is the schizophrenic.

This turns out to be a very revealing activity. It reminds me of when one of my old therapists talked to me about Family Systems therapy. FST asks the therapee (is that a word?) to identify and name the various internal messages pinging throughout our brain. The idea here is that there’s so much going on in our brains before we even open the document. Like I said yesterday, and will most likely say every day, the value of sharing is immense.

Also, have students draw their writing process. We don’t do this because of time. I’m bummed out. She shows us a few of the examples. They’re more like collages. These are so good my heart hurts.




  1. Pingback: Just Don’t Stop! A Brief Explanation of Freewriting | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes
  2. Pingback: Writing Resources from the Northern Virginia Writing Project | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes

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