Notes from the battlefield

Towards A Theory Of Why People Write

(This article was first published in ‘Language Arts’, Vol. 65 No. 2 Feb. 1988)

I’m a writer. As such I often see myself as a bloodied and wounded soldier staggering around a battlefield in an attempt to conquer the blank page. As a soldier in the thick of it all I will try to explain from the battlefield why I write and why other write around me. I’ll also try to puzzle out, from the perspective of a war correspondent who stands back and observes, why there are so many deserters out there, refusing to take up their pens and write alongside me. Is it becausethe wages aren’t good enough? Is it because there’s nothing worth writing for? Is it because it’s only a pretend battle with pretend rewards for pretend winners? We’ll see.

Research on how writers write has been illuminating. We choose our own topics, decide our own purposes, target our own audiences, take our time, draft and redraft, talk over our writing with trusted friends and colleagues, and publish our pieces if we’re lucky. As a teacher I’ve applied these writers’ conditions in my classes and I’ve noticed, of course, a consequent improvement in the effectiveness of my students’ writing.

What interests me now is not so much how writers write, but why we write. What drives us to do it in the first place? And then what makes us want to do it well? If I can find the answers to these questions I might dare to ask myself another: what are the implications for teachers of writing?

When I was still in the hunting and gathering stage of this book, lost in a wilderness of notes, my husband came in to give me a cup of coffee.

“You look really tired,” he said.

“I am,” I replied, “but I don’t mind. I like doing this because it matters.” I heard myself say “it matters” and my mind leapt to its feet in a single bound. So that was why I wrote: because it mattered. Was this already an answer to one of my questions?

I wondered immediately why it mattered. First, I’d been asked to write it by people whom I liked and admired, so I felt I had to demonstrate my worthiness. I know that an expert is anyone from out of town, but I wanted to prove it to my American readers. It also mattered because of the effect I hoped it might have on me, on you, and on our teaching. I wanted to make a contribution to our thinking, to create a reaction, to cause us all to shift our attitudes somehow, no matter how uncomfortable that shift might be. I wouldn’t have dreamt of stumbling into this battlefield and sweating over such an enormous project had I not ached with caring about the insights I wanted to share and the response I was trying to achieve. I had, clearly, a huge investment in this piece of writing.

I used three phrases in that last paragraph which I’ll be reiterating throughout this chapter. Whenever you read them, I’d be grateful if you’d think of yourself first as a writer and then as a teacher of writing, and ask yourself when you or your students last ached with caring over what you were writing, or wrote because it mattered, or wrote because you had a huge investment in your writing.

Let me begin to focus on caring by way of another story. I teach a compulsory preservice course in language arts to first-year teacher education students. For some years we set the following assignment: that students should write a letter to the parents of a class of imaginary children explaining the recent innovations and peculiarities in the teaching of reading and writing. It was never brilliantly executed. It was not a real letter, it was an assignment to be marked. It didn’t matter to the students; they had only a temporary investment in it which was to pass the course and they certainly didn’t ache with caring over the response because the audience was imaginary and the response therefore impossible. We don’t set that assignment anymore because something occurred which taught us a great deal.

At the time of this assignment, a literacy crank well known in the letter columns of our local press wrote yet another letter to the paper. This time it was in horrified protest at the slovenliness of the “process approach” to the teaching of writing. Three of my students were up in arms about it and decided to write a reply. They huddled together for hours drafting and arguing. They were in and out of my office all day reading me this sentence and that. I watched them do that T.S. Eliot thing of engaging in “the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings”. They ached with caring because it mattered. They worried about the spelling and punctuation, not wanting the geriatric literacy freak to jump on them and say, “I told you so!” And then, bliss and heaven, it was published!. With a huge headline! It was picked up by talk-back radio and the lines ran hot for half an hour. What a response! What a real reason to write.

At the same time as that real letter was published the same three students handed in their pretend letters to the parents. I found it hard to believe that students who could on the one hand write so well could on the other write so indifferently. The development of their writing skills in their letter to the paper was palpable, but it didn’t flow over into their imaginary letter for the simple reason that “let’s pretend” isn’t real, doesn’t matter, lacks any investment, and won’t get a worthwhile response.

If, as this story might imply, language develops only when it is used “for real”, then might I suggest that we’re currently wasting a lot of time by setting unreal writing tasks in our classrooms: filling-in-the-blanks exercises, copying-chunks-from-encyclopedias exercises, make-believe job applications, “Answer-ten-questions-on-Chapter-Six” exercises, pretend-letters-to-parents exercises, and so on. You and I don’t engage in meaningless writing exercises in real life—we’re far too busy doing the real thing. And by doing the real thing we constantly learn how to do the real thing better. Giving unreal writing activities to our students is about as useful as giving occupational therapy for stroke victims to people who are in perfect health.

Among the various drafts of this chapter are sixteen different leads, one of which has currently ended up in my final paragraph because there it’s effective: it helps me to sum up and conclude on a powerful note. It would have been crazily unconnected to have kept it at the start of the chapter, but I might have left it there had i not cared about you, my audience, my readers. I wanted you to understand clearly the meanings I was making because they’re important to me. The result? I revised. I developed as a writer by developing my writing, which sounds tautologous, but isn’t. If the children in our classes don’t care about their readers, how can they develop as writers? They can’t, because they won’t care about what they’re writing, and they won’t want to revise.

Here’s another example of caring being the key to development. It isn’t about writing, it’s about speaking but I think you’ll see why I want to relate it. In their first semester at college all my first year students take a course with me designed to improve their own writing and reading, speaking and listening. For years they have told each other stories in class, recited poems in class, designed and performed choral speaking in class, and read aloud picture books and excerpts from children’s novels in class, always to the same audience: their peers. It was merely satisfactory. One year, in a blinding realization of my own stupidity at the meagre purpose of these “in-class” assignments, I organized twenty-eight groups of students, about four to six in each group, to visit twenty-eight different real classes in schools close to the college. Their task was to devise and perform a half-hour program of story and song, recited poems and choral poems, picture book readings, and enthusiastic raves about appropriate novels—anything, in fact, which would enhance their listeners’ language development. I called the assignment “Language Alive”.

How can I describe the difference in my students’ attitude and commitment? It was as if I’d asked them in the past to potter along country lanes in some old Model T Ford and was now surprised to find them screaming down the straight in top gear in the Adelaide Grand Prix. Dreading the imminent and real audience galvanized them into quite a different sort of action: they ached with caring about the response and rehearsed for hours outside class times.

My students’ enjoyment of language was extraordinary. I was moved by how happy they were, astounded by how hard they worked, and stunned by how much they developed. I realized with grief that purposeless activities in language arts are probably the burial grounds of language development, and that coffins can be found in most classrooms, including mine. It’s all so obvious that I feel rather shy about telling these stories.

I recall my daughter, Chloë then aged sixteen, being embattled with an important Matriculation assignment: a six-thousand-word reflection on her involvement in the Matric play, “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-moon Marigolds”. Every so often she would read bits of her piece to her father and to me. Being so caught up in my own writing must have made me a highly unsatisfactory audience. One evening she read this:

“We realized we had no live rabbit. The problem of the rabbit was one that was to hang over us—no! Not us, me—for what seemed to be an extremely long time. The production began to be divided into three distinct periods: B.T.R. (Before the rabbit); D.T.R. (During the rabbit); and A.T.R. (After the rabbit). I look back on the weeks B.T.R. with considerable affection.”

She stopped suddenly, looked at me, and said, “You’re not laughing enough!” I was chastened. Her purpose in reading it had been to make me laugh. I had merely smiled and it wasn’t anywhere good enough for her. I hadn’t noticed how much she’d ached with caring.

When she read sections of the same piece to my husband, it was to ensure that the content is sufficiently detailed and the writing sufficiently alive. “Is this what they want?” she asked. My husband was a Matric Drama moderator so from him she was looking for the response of an expert. From me she wanted the response of a clown. We provided these responses and she was encouraged to continue.

I wonder how often I’ve given my students an opportunity to write a piece which might have two or more purposes: to make someone laugh, for instance, as well as to fulfil the requirements of a formal assignment. Have I ever given any indication that I enjoy laughing and would be quite happy to roll around the floor in hysterics while I’m marking their assignments? Do I allow students to hear me laughing over their writing, so that they’re encouraged to write again? Yes, sometimes I do. I have a loud laugh and have often been asked to “shush” when I’ve disturbed other groups of readers and writers in my class by laughing over someone’s writing. But that disturbing laugh is important: it indicates to my students that their writing is effective and therefore worthwhile. My red nose and blotchy eyes are similarly important: “Hey, guess what, guys? Mem really cries if your writing makes her sad.” In other words, if they have ached with caring over what they’ve written, they know I will ache with caring over my response.

One more related story: my position as a published writer in the college means that colleagues view me, erroneously, as an ideal person to talk to about their own writing although I am acutely aware that anyone can respond to a draft in terms of what’s confusing, boring, missing, or riveting. Be that as it may, a colleague in environmental education came into my office once, so aching with caring over mining in national parks that, as he began to read the ending of his first draft of an open letter to the South Australian minister for the environment, he actually wept. I couldn’t believe it! He cared so deeply about the potential response from the minister, he wanted so much to transform the minister’s ideas and to alter the minister’s actions that he was in and out of my office all day with newly refined drafts. The final letter was tremendously powerful. I wish I could discover what sorts of things my students care enough about to make them weep with worry as they try to get their writing right.

Chloë, my drama queen, understands the thrust of my academic passions as a teacher of the teaching of writing and is wary of it. She looked up from her own writing one evening and said challengingly, “I’m not enjoying this, you know. I hate writing.” She was attempting to undermine my thesis, but I didn’t kill her. I have other ways of doing battle. Instead, I returned the challenge: “Well, how come you like writing to J.J. so much? You haven’t even met her.” J.J. was her New York pen friend. I had set the trap and she fell right into it. This was her reply: “Well, I’m making friends with her. We like each other. You get to know people through letters. She writes excellent letters and so do I. We’re friends.” Aha! She’d admitted to caring about the relationship.

Mitchell and Taylor (1979), in their pivotal and still relevant paper on audience/response model for writing state: “…the writing on the page is not a concrete object but one portion of a relationship.” All writing, that is, not just letter writing. I know, intellectually, that language is an interactive, social process but I’m only just beginning to understand what that means, emotionally. My writing, I’m realizing, nearly always has the socially interactive purpose of either creating relationships or ensuring that established relationships continue. I’m being terribly careful about how to behave in the minefield of this first chapter because you, dear reader, matter to me so much. Your possible reaction keeps me nervous and on my toes.

Whenever I write, whether it’s a picture book, or my journal, or a course handbook for students, or notes for the milkman, there’s always someone on the other side, if you like, who sits invisibly watching me write, waiting to read what I’ve written. The watcher is always important. I’ve discovered I never write for people of no importance. Showing my writing to that watcher makes me feel weak and vulnerable and almost incapable of battling on. My shakiness over the first draft of this paper for example, was so extreme that, while my husband was reading it, I had to leave the room. My only other responder was a woman friend and colleague whom I knew I could trust. I knew she’d still like me even if, in her opinion, I’d written rubbish. Our relationship was, thank God, unassailable.

The more I admire my potential readers the more carefully I write and the more often I revise. Recently I wrote a student handbook for the second semester aware, of course, that I was continuing a well-established and hilarious relationship with my students. Of much more importance, however, was the colleague with whom I was about to teach the course. I look up to her. I try to emulate her. I admire her. I wrote the handbook for her, battling over it for weeks. I wanted to bask in the warmth of her praise and gratitude. The handbook was an enormous personal investment in my continuing relationship with her. My writing was currency and her response was my dividend.

How often are our students able to receive a response from someone they particularly admire? Some of mine (but never enough of them) admire me. As their teacher I am temporarily important enough for them to ache with caring about what they write for me. Or am I fooling myself? They never write anything for me that isn’t also read aloud in class. Is it the response from that wider audience which makes their writing matter? I don’t mind what it is as long as someone’s response makes them care enough to write effectively, for without that caring how can their writing develop through revision?

I had been corresponding with the children from Hallam and Berwick Primary Schools in Victoria for years. In 1987 we finally met. I arrived armed with photographs of my house, my pets, and my family. We had established such an excellent relationship that the children were sad Malcolm and Chloë couldn’t come too because they felt they knew them. But Malcolm and Chloë had written them letters which I read aloud:

Dear Berwick and Hallam kids,

Please keep my mother for as long as you like. I only want her back for Christmas, Easter, and birthdays. Why do you like her so much?

Love Chloë

Dear Hallam and Berwickites,

I must have Mem back within twenty-four hours or she’ll turn into a toad. Please look after her carefully and return her in one piece.

Much love, Malcolm.

When I arrived home on the following evening neither Malcolm nor Chloë wanted to hear anything about my trip except the children’s response to their letters. Whenever I steered the conversation to more exciting matters, they demanded further, deeper, more fulsome news of the reactions from each of the twenty-six classes. They had written for the purposes of getting a reaction and maintaining a relationship. I was irritated until I realized they were providing me with data for my research into why people write.

I think we tend to forget about this element of relationships when we teach writing. Are we aware of how much our students dread having their writing knocked back? Do we trample on their vulnerability when they limp in, unarmed from the battlefield? Do we remember how much the caring over their writing is often also an aching to make friends, with us, and with their mates? It’s hard to keep in mind the painful wounds of battle and the importance of mateship unless you’ve been wounded yourself. Teachers of writing who have been soldiers themselves, engaged in a writing battle, must be able to empathize more closely with the comrades in their classrooms than teachers who are merely war correspondents at the hotel bar, as it were, watching the battle from a safe distance, declining to get in there and write themselves.

When the refreshing ideas of Donald Graves swept through our writing classes in the early eighties, I believed that the ultimate purpose in writing was the response, by someone, that what had been written was worthy of publication and was then published. Since then I have become a published writer myself and I realize how wrong I was. It’s what happens beyond publishing that’s important: it’s the response to my work that matters. Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge has been published in both England and the United States. In America it is loved and I’m feted for it. In England no one seems to know about it, except for my sister, so I get no response, so I get despondent, and wonder why I ever bothered to write it. Then I come home again and a colleague comes into my office and sobs hysterically for two hours. She’s just read the book and is overcome because her own mother has Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a wonderful response.

Yet another story! When I left Australia aged six month, I was Miss Partridge. When I came back in 1970, I was Mrs. Fox. Friends of my parents called Mr. and Mrs. Bunney (yes, really!) looked after us in those first few months and helped us to settle in. Bronte Bunney later employed me and we worked together at the college for fifteen years, often laughing over the ridiculousness of our surnames. When Bronte retired, I wrote him a tiny book called The Bunney and the Fox. It was published. I “published” it myself. I couldn’t find him on that last Friday afternoon and I longed to find him to watch his response as he read the book. I was desperate. I’d heard he’d be clearing out his office on the Saturday morning. I went there. He wasn’t. I drove to his house. He was out. I was ready to scream. In the end I left it by his front door knowing gloomily that I’d never see his response, I’d just have to wait to hear it. Here’s the book:

The Bunney and the Fox

Once upon a time there lived a Partridge and a Bunney. The Bunney was beautiful and brilliant but never bashful. And he was always busy. One day, far across the world, the Partridge turned into a Fox. And not long afterwards she travelled to the place where the Bunney had his home. For a long time the Bunney and the Fox worked happily side by side. Not much changed except that besides being beautiful and brilliant the Bunney was also very kind to the Fox. He encouraged her greatly and said nice things to her face and behind her back. And the Fox became so used to having the dear Bunney around that when the Bunney went away—as indeed he did—she wondered, with a lump in her throat, whether she really could live happily, ever after.

I can’t imagine my students ever chasing anyone around the countryside in a desperate craving for a response to their writing but that is my goal.

There are responses and responses, some of which are financial. I wrote Sail Away partly to make money. I have earned such a sum from Possum Magic that I had been continually running after myself in order to pay the provisional tax. In fact, for a long time after Possum Magic I labored under the illusion that the financial benefits of writing were among my purposes for putting pen to paper. I’ve come to discover that this isn’t really the case.

Several years ago I wrote a long and passionate newspaper article for the on why we send our precious only child to the local state high school instead of to a private one. I was paid for this article in March. For some reason was never been published. Every Sunday morning I would stagger bleary-eyed down the drive in my battered blue dressing gown and ripped open the paper in a fever of anticipation.

Nothing! I realized two things: first, I wanted to be published more than I wanted to be paid. Second, it was the reaction to my piece that I longed for. Publication was merely the first hurdle along the road to response.

Nevertheless, knowing that cash can be a tremendous incentive, I did suggest at a crowded workshop at Teachers’ College, Columbia University that we pay children for what they write before we put their pieces into a class library. Wouldn’t you think that a writing seminar in New York, of all places, would be full of hustlers? But no! Lucy Calkins was speechless. Was it with horror? And Shelley Harwayne was in hysterics. In spite of that, I bravely paid eleven of my students for the privilege of publishing their writing in a booklet called “Picking Up the Pieces”, a booklet designed to demonstrate to other students what I believe effective writing to be. If royalties are a post-publication response which matters enough to make my students ache with caring, I think it’s worth considering, outrageous and grubby though it may seem at this moment. If it’s good enough for real writers, why isn’t it good enough for real student writers?

I think it might be safely said that in general people don’t expect to write much after they’ve left school, except when it’s absolutely necessary, as a tool, in letter writing for instance, or when it’s part of their work. In short, it’s seen as a chore. The view that writing might be fun, or amusing, or relaxing is not, I imagine, widely held, and we teachers must be to blame for that.

During the writing of this chapter a letter arrived from one of my publishers, exhorting me to write a poem for their forthcoming volume for children called “Vile Verse”. I put the letter away. But when the going got tough, the tough got going. In the same way as one searches for handkerchiefs to iron when the strain of ironing shirts becomes too much, I began to work on a poem, as a form of relaxation. I remembered with delight the groans of disgust from kids who’d heard my first putrid poem, “The Teacher’s Cold”, and set to with energy to write the following:

“Sweet Samantha, Unrefined”.

When sweet Samantha eats her food
She is exceptionally rude:
Her mouth is always open wide
So you can see the view inside.
It’s not a pretty sight, my friends,
To see how Sammy’s dinner ends-
Across her tongue the pieces float
Around her teeth, towards her throat:
You almost vomit while she chews
And tells you all the latest news!
It’s terrible when fish and chips
Come shooting forth between her lips
Or when she’s eating lamingtons
And bits of coconut grow wings
And catch you right between the eyes-
Your stomach soon begins to rise!
But scrambled egg is quite the worst:
It looks as though her cheeks will burst
With all the stuff which fills her mouth
From east to west and north to south.
My dears, it is a frightful sight
When sweet Samantha takes a bite,
So my advice is stand well clear
Especially when she starts to cheer,
And do make sure that you have dined
Before, Samantha, unrefined,
Attacks her stew and starts to chew
And sprays her food all over you…

As I wrote that very vile verse, I realized that my purposes for writing anything never come in ones but always in twos and threes or more. Firstly, I wrote it because it was fun. I also wrote it for Chloë because I knew it would disgust her and that we’d laugh over it together, thereby building on our continuing relationship. I also wrote it for Malcolm who was tapping away on a calculator looking very despondent over our finances. I knew it would cheer him up, not only because it was so revolting but also because it would earn a dollar a line if were published, thereby enabling him to pay at least $28 off the Visa bill. And lastly I wrote it for the children of Australia as an antidote to the honeyed sweetness of my Possum Magic and Hattie and the Fox.

I hadn’t realized how often I wrote for fun until my Malcolm read the first draft of this paper and said, “I’m amazed that you haven’t explained how writing is central to your life. It fascinates you. It rewards you. It fatigues you. Nowhere have you actually said you can’t live without writing.” Can’t live without writing? Had I heard correctly? I loathe writing! It’s so easy to do badly and so difficult to do well that I quail before each new writing task. I particularly detest the battle to produce a picture book story in less than 750 words. Of course I can live without writing—or can I?

One day when I was out shopping I met the deputy principal from Chloë’s primary school. She had, that very week, come across a letter I’d written back in 1977 about Chloë being absent from school. She’d kept it because it had made her laugh. Goodness knows which letter it was; I’d written so many for one reason or another. Chloë’s tenth grade maths teacher has a whole file of them, each attempting to be funnier than the last to distract his attention from her dismal performance and incomplete homework. It’s true I can’t live without writing. Every time the chance to write arises, whether it’s to the window cleaner about leaving the dogs in the back garden, not in the house, or to the lawyer about the proliferation of Possum Magic products and its ramifications, my aim is to enjoy myself. I love imagining the reader reading what I’ve written because, I suppose, I’ve had such terrific responses in the past. I just can’t resist messing around with writing.

I can’t not try because my sense of audience is so strong. It might result from having trained as an actress for three years in the Stanislavski tradition: I can see and hear my imagined readers very clearly. I can’t even sign a birthday greeting without going into battle with the blank side of the card. A feminist bookshop in Adelaide was having its fifth birthday so I signed a card but couldn’t seal it. I stood pondering in the post office. The bookshop is called “The Murphy Sisters”. What could I write? All I could think of was, “The boy stood on the burning deck…” The boy? For a feminist bookshop? Suddenly it came:

The girl stood on the burning deck
Her feet were full of blisters
She could not move-
Her head was in
A book from Murphy Sisters.

What does all this have to do with the teaching of writing? First, I wonder how often we demonstrate our crazy, private note writing to our students? It’s probably not much of an option in their lives because they don’t know that it’s possible, that such fun exists, and that it’s rewarding for its own sake, let alone for the glorious responses it creates. I’m wrong, of course. They do know. What about all those underground notes students write to each other in class? Why can’t we legitimize it? Wouldn’t it make our classrooms come alive if kids giggled and shrieked in the open about writing that was written in the open, instead of underground?

Second, isn’t it incredible how often writing means writing stories? I can’t stand writing stories. Honestly! I never write them from my imagination—only when an idea from life or books jumps into my head, not out of it. I have about four ideas a year and I’m a proficient, professional, published writer, yet we ask children to write story after story. What’s wrong with letters, for instance? Clarity and voice and power and control are much more easily developed through letter writing because, perhaps, the audience is so clearly defined and will, if all goes well, respond. Writing for fun is not just for fun—it’s for the long-term, conspicuous development of the craft itself.

Within the fun of writing there is also power. It seems to me that the most delicate transactions are best dealt with through a sort of self-effacing humor which makes one’s point without causing offence. But do we ever communicate the possibility of this kind of writing to our students so that they might become similarly empowered in their own lives? I shared the following letter with my students to demonstrate the kind of writing I have used beyond my schooling. It was to the architect of our home extensions, toward the end of the building project:

Dear Brian,

Here I am, home again, and eager to bring The Extension Situation to a close. The State Bank is satisfied with the work and will pay the builder as soon as we indicate in writing that we are similarly satisfied. A few things still require attention, however.

1. There are still no handles on the drawers in my office. This is, as you can imagine, an extreme hazard to my nails!

2. The toilet seat is so badly positioned that it will not stay up. I fear the intimate damage this may cause any male guest…

3. The bricks in the patio have not been replaced and, as it is unlikely that we shall excavate for buried treasure in the near future, I would like them replaced as soon as possible.

4. Although we do not see eye to eye with our neighbor (he is very short), I would be unhappy to see him killed by falling bricks when he leans over the fence to gasp in admiration at our extensions. The brick wall separating our properties could, at present, be pushed over by a child. The damage to the wall was caused during the initial excavations. Early rectification of this danger would be appreciated.

5. Otherwise the place is a perfection of taste and convenience—thank you! I love it. The State Bank mentioned that the builder was expecting all the rest of the money. I was puzzled because I understood that we would save approximately $2,000 by not having a retaining wall built. I have exquisitely good eyesight and search though I might, I cannot find a retaining wall! I hope that you can clarify this situation. I am a writer, not a mathematician.

With happy thanks, Mem Fox.

I am not at all surprised, considering the purpose of this letter that Mitchell and Taylor (1979) understand writing to be “a means of acting upon a receiver. Its success will be judged by the audience’s reaction: ‘good’ translates into ‘effective’, ‘bad’ into ‘ineffective’. Instead of a product, we are studying an interaction, a dynamic relationship with all the complexities that involves.” (p. 250) My letter to the architect was framed and now hangs upon his office wall among his diplomas. And the extensions were completed to our entire satisfaction. The letter was effective.

I’m anxious about the power or lack of it in school writing. Power is about being able to craft a piece of writing so effectively that its purpose is achieved. “Craft” means understanding the nature and importance of leads and endings; of showing, not telling; of sharpening and tightening; of structure and focus; of purpose and audience; and of the conventions. “Craft” means being able to put those understandings into practice. “Craft” means struggling in that battlefield between the brain and the hand until the best possible draft is achieved. Children won’t learn how to be powerful by writing identical letters to Mem Fox, as so often happens, alas. So depressing!

I use the power of my own writing regularly, to manipulate the world into granting my wishes. For example, I remember applying for and receiving vast funding to attend a conference in New Zealand at which I wasn’t even presenting a paper. The committee concerned had collapsed into unwilling giggles over my application and, hey presto, there was my air ticket! And best of all, in 1986 I jumped over five incremental steps in my promotion to Senior Lecturer, a feat so daring I wouldn’t have attempted it had I not had confidence in my own power to write a sufficiently stunning application.

Such power doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from practising writing for real reasons. It comes from having read powerful writing. It comes from having been taught, and I mean taught, the basic skills of spelling and punctuation in the context of real writing events. Those of us who write best have most power and therefore have most control over our lives. It seems to me to be a supreme arrogance on our part as teachers not to see that the granting of this power to our children is politically and socially essential. In the end they must be able to spell and punctuate; they’re powerless without those skills. Their power won’t come about without practice and the practice can’t come about without purpose. The hardest thing for me as a teacher is discovering purposes which will excite my students to such an extent that they’ll risk the trauma of the writing battle. It’s hard, but it mustn’t be impossible, for their sakes.
I haven’t given much thought to it yet, but I have more than a hunch that power in writing actually deteriorates the further ahead children travel in their schooling. Many of my teacher education students after twelve years at school come to me helpless and fearful as writers, detesting it in the main, believing that they can’t write because they have nothing to say because they haven’t cared about saying anything because it hasn’t mattered because there’s been no real investment for so long. How I wish we could change this situation. We must give power to our people.

Before I’m carried from this battlefield on a stretcher, let me rapidly summarize my notes. The insights I have as to why I write make me believe that as a teacher I must try to:

In my last will and testament I’d like to leave you this theory: children develop language through interaction, not action. They learn to talk by talking to someone who responds. They must therefore learn to write by writing to someone who responds. It’s not a new theory, but it’s one I keep forgetting even though it’s so clear and simple. Please keep it somewhere safe.
I don’t mind if you, dear reader, forget most of what I have written in this chapter except for one phrase: “to ache with caring”. If we as teachers ache with caring it will, perhaps, be possible for us to create classroom communities within school communities in which writing matters because it’s done for real reasons by real writers who “ache with caring” for a real response.

My hope is that through the grimy windows of my particularity we’ve been able to peer into a more generalized world; that we can now move into that world as agents of change so that our students write more, write more often, write more effectively and with greater willingness and enjoyment. I wish we could change the world by creating powerful writers for forever instead of just indifferent writers for school.


  1. Mitchell, R and Taylor, M, “The Integrating Perspective: An Audience/Response Model for Writing.” College English, 41 (1979).