“Be patient, listen quietly, the writing will come. The voice of the writing will tell you what to do.” — Donald M. Murray, America’s writing teacher.
I came across a poem my son Nathanael wrote 20 years ago, a month after he turned eleven. A few weeks into the school year, his Grade Six teacher at Maharishi School gave the students a writing assignment. Their homework was to write a poem for class the next day. The pressure was on. I don’t recall much of the details, but I do remember Nathanael saying he had a problem with this. We discussed it. He felt strongly that you couldn’t force a poem into existence; it had to come naturally, from inspiration. I agreed and suggested he express that idea somehow in his poem. He was determined to send his teacher a message. What he wrote blew me away. He was inspired!
A poem comes naturally,
Not forced, not assigned, not sought for.
A poem should be inspired,
Not under pressure, surely not, for,
A poem is spontaneous, creative. How?
It is the nature of the poem to slip out.
That’s what you must allow.
So sit back and relax
For you must be patient,
And of course, do not rush.
A poem comes naturally,
Here it comes,
© Nathanael Chawkin
September 24, 1991
This idea of allowing, even encouraging writing to come spontaneously reminds me of a poem written by William Stafford—A Course in Creative Writing, in response to educators at a conference expecting writing instructors to clearly spell out how and what their students should write, and by implication, to praise or blame them accordingly. This left no room for students, or their teachers, to express their own creativity, and no guidance to help them find their own voice, something that was not part of their methodology.
Stafford was about process, not necessarily product, and acted more as a facilitator than an instructor. He tried hard to not offer any praise or blame, fearing students would then write to please him and not themselves. He also avoided giving students any grades in his classes. I think they would grade themselves or each other based on their evaluation of their work. You can imagine the frustration this must have caused the administration. He was considered an odd ball, a heretic to the status quo at that time. But that would change. His approach would start a revolution in the teaching of creative writing.
This poem, William Stafford—You and Art, speaks volumes about the writer who is open to “making mistakes” and following his own voice down new paths of expression. It’s a beautiful description of the maturation of an artist and the source of inspiration. You can read more William Stafford poems on my blog.
Another great exponent of teaching writing was Donald M. Murray. A journalist, Murray was invited to teach journalism at the University of New Hampshire. He admittedly knew nothing about teaching, but was obviously an accomplished writer, having won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1954 at the age of 29. So he looked to his own process as a writer and broke it down into the different stages he would go through to end up with a polished piece of writing.
One of Murray’s earliest books, Learning By Teaching, is a selection of articles on writing and teaching. It’s filled with examples of the steps he would go through as a writer, writing and rewriting to gain clarity; the stages of teaching he evolved through, from lecturer, to modeler, to facilitator, to getting out of the way; and quotes about writing by other writers. We used it as our textbook in a workshop to become writing facilitators. We learned how to conduct writing conferences to help students with their writing. The course taught me a lot about the craft of writing, the different stages, from pre-writing, to draft, to rewriting, editing, to final draft, and the teaching of it.
A comprehensive book on Murray and his work was published October 2009 by Heinemann: The Essential Don Murray: Lessons From America’s Greatest Writing Teacher. I love the opening quote from the book’s press release: New book offers lessons from writing teacher Don Murray. It affirms my son’s sentiment: “Be patient, listen quietly, the writing will come. The voice of the writing will tell you what to do.” — Don Murray.
Murray helped Donald Graves with his writing. Graves started a revolution by watching how young children wrote in school. He brought what he had learned from Murray into the classroom and taught teachers how to become writers themselves, then how to apply this approach with their students. Read this excellent article by Kimberly Swick Slover about Graves called The Write Way. It also mentions how Murray turned him into a writer. Same thing in this excellent video interview with Donald H. Graves and Penny Kittle.
Now creative writing classes are student-centered and process-oriented, with teachers openly modeling their own process as writers, and facilitating students to do the same, allowing and enabling them to become genuine writers, from draft to publication.
Although I never had the opportunity to meet or study with either Murray or Stafford, both were seminal influences. They acted as a guide from the side, not a sage from the stage. They taught about writing as writers and poets in classes, workshops, and through their articles, interviews, books and poems. I thank them for helping me, and thousands of other writers and teachers, to better understand the writing process.
Here is one of my first poems on the subject, Writing—a poem on the writing process. After the poem, I add a short piece about Murray and Stafford. I would share these poems and thoughts with Nathanael. It seemed to have gone deeply into him. Like father, like son.
Also see A Tanka about my son’s Aikido teacher.