Posts Tagged ‘Donald H Murray’

The perils of praise or blame for young writers. New ways to help students find their own voice.

April 13, 2019

The teaching of writing has evolved over the decades. Teachers used to praise students for duplicating what they were instructed to write, or criticized and graded poorly for not meeting established norms. This practice of praise or blame created consequences that were detrimental to the writer. They doubted their own natural ability to express themselves in writing, wondering whether it was good or not.

W.S. Merwin, in his poem, Berryman,* about his college professor John Berryman, asks him “how can you ever be sure that what you write is really any good at all?” He gives him an unexpected honest answer.

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

Nearly three decades after he mentored Merwin, Berryman would encapsulate his advice to young writers in this Paris Review interview, on the perils of praise and blame.

I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.

It’s interesting to see this explanation—how praise (fame) or blame (criticism) might influence a young writer’s psychology, and therefore his or her creative output and development as a writer. Advising them to stay true to themselves, remain unswayed by public opinion, would allow them to maintain their own integrity as artists.

David Lynch is another artist who always follows his own muse and tells young filmmakers to do the same. Answering a student’s question about his creative process, he says we’re nothing without an idea. Using a fishing analogy, he explains that a desire for an idea is like a bait on a hook. He gives a detailed account of how he falls in love with ideas, turns them into a script, and transforms them into a film, or other works of art. To catch bigger fish, you have to dive deeper. David describes daydreaming and TM as ways to get there. He tells students to stay true to their vision, to meditate, and most importantly, to always have the final cut.

In this interview, he answers the same question, but from a different perspective: In the other room, the puzzle is all together, but they keep flipping in just one piece at a time.

Learning by doing: writing and teaching

When writers and poets were asked to teach creative writing, some conveyed the enterprise as a process to be explored and unfolded, not as a specific product to be reproduced. What they said made sense. I practiced their suggestions and discovered my own process of becoming a writer and a poet.

I also shared their strategies with my students facilitating them as writers. The most important takeaway was this: If you took care of the writer, the writing would take care of itself.

I enjoyed asking younger students questions to find out what they were passionate about, to help them uncover their own voice. If they said something interesting, I had them write it down, then asked them to combine their thoughts into a rough draft. I had them listen to what they had written by reading it aloud to me, to use their skills as a reader. Once involved in the process they naturally wanted to clarify their writing, to include relevant details, to edit their work. They had become intrinsically motivated writers!

Here are a few favorite writers who inspired me along the way.

What some favorite poets, writers and teachers say about writing

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