Dispatches | March 20, 2015
How Learning to Write is Like Making Alfredo
By Hannah Cuthbertson
On my laptop, there are approximately one hundred and sixty three poems, three (sort of) finished drafts of manuscripts, six(ish) definitely unfinished manuscripts, and twelve document folders jam-picked with half finished scenes, assorted chapters, and hopeless outlines.
Oh, did I mention that I’m nineteen-going-on-twenty?
My passion for creative writing began as soon as I could read. I have a blue plastic bin in my bedroom closet filled with wide-ruled spiral notebooks full of very awful (but equally adorable, if I do say so myself) stories that I used to write in kindergarten while the other kids were coloring or stealing each others crayons or, much to the dismay of my even then germ-a-phobic self, picking their noses as all kindergartners seem to do. Creating characters and plotlines wasn’t a hobby that my peers seemed to share in.
Now, as I’ve matured (a little bit), persevered through high school, and have almost completed my first two years of college, I can say that writing isn’t a hobby frequently prized amongst most of the teenage demographic, either. Sure, in high school even the “cool kids” were up to date on their cult-fiction titles (mainly the ones that were turned into movies). Yet very few were interested in actually contributing to the content of the bookshelves they found themselves browsing. Then, there was me. I didn’t just read books while I should’ve been taking notes in class, I dreamt up books. The majority of my notebooks were filled halfway with actual notes and halfway with sporadic scenes that I couldn’t get out of my head. I was a regular attendee of my high-school’s creative writing club, and our attendance peaked at ten and bottomed out at three.
Writing, no matter how much people love to read, doesn’t seem to be the “hip” or “in” thing for teens to talk about doing. This may be due, in part, to the public education system (I’m talking k-12 here) and how it seems to place a great emphasis on reading creative works, but not much emphasis on the importance of fostering that creativity in its students. Walk into any high school English class and the first question the teacher will ask is, “Read anything good lately?” when really a more introspective question might be “Written anything good lately?”.
We’re taught English by reading literature, but very rarely taught it by learning how to write it. Whoever decided this was the best way to teach clearly wasn’t a “learn-by-doing” kind of pal. Then, of course, teachers are aggravated when their students’ essays come out all too mechanic and scripted, and claim they need to be more fluid and thoughtful in their writing. But if all they’re taught is to churn out topic sentences and five paragraph essays, what do we really expect them to turn in?
Only in my sophomore year of high school did my then-English teacher encourage us to write creatively and give us a forum on which to discuss our work with other students. This experience stands out to me as a highlight not only because I enjoyed it at the time, but because I can look back on it now and see its value. One of my favorite research papers I’ve ever written, I wrote in her class. I can say with fair certainty that it has to do with how she made writing more than just something we did for a grade. Granted, all good things must come to an end, and by the end of the term we all shuffled back into SOL-taking mode and gone were the days of writers-group-Fridays. But I’m distanced enough from my then-fifteen year old self to appreciate the method behind the madness.
Compare it to cooking. You can either give someone a box noodles and a jar of sauce and tell them to follow the instructions, or you can give them the ingredients and let them figure out how to make it all by themselves. Now, I’m a college student, and I love boxed food just as much as the next girl, but there’s nothing about boiling a pot of water and pouring in some dry noodles that makes me a better cook. What does make me a better cook is when I experiment with different seasonings and flavors and make it up as I go. For example, did you know you could make alfredo sauce with butter, cream cheese, and that grated parmesan that comes in the green tube? Neither did I, until I did it. Granted, I’ve made some pretty horrendous things. But have I made some pretty great things, too? Absolutely.
I was lucky enough in high school to have several teachers who helped foster my passion and creativity, who gave me the ingredients I needed and encouraged me to create, who applauded me when I succeeded and encouraged me when I was struggled. I consider myself to be a continuing beneficiary of such luck now that I am in college and am still surrounded by wonderful people and instructors who are doing the same. My writing is continually being pushed, poked, and prodded by people who see something worthwhile in me, and I’m grateful for those people. But it shouldn’t be up to a select few teachers who want to spice up their lesson plan by adding in some creative flare. I think that if we’re going to change the landscape, if we’re going to get more young people like myself writing quality work and openly talking about it, then we need to encourage not just the people who ask for encouragement but also the people who don’t even know they could use it. I think, also, that this starts with breaking down the barriers of what defines a good writer or reader.
There is no specific box you have to fit yourself into to be writer. You can love reading Cosmopolitan and the New Yorker with equal measure. You can love classic literature and young-adult fiction (Divergent, I’m lookin’ at you). Good writing comes in all shapes and sizes and styles, and the first step in overhauling the way writing is taught in public schools is by changing the perception of who should be encouraged to, well, write. Then, and only then, maybe writing will be a “hip” and “cool” thing for teens to do.
Or, maybe, I’m just too hopeful for my own good.
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