Toward “Large fish in small bowls”

“Large fish in small bowls…” was how she put it.

A junior in a creative writing course, she and her classmates had been tasked with developing a metaphor to describe their own eyes, then somehow to create a poem around that image. Her poem, a lucid and highly imaginative extended metaphor grappling with self-understanding (think the cinematic humor of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away meets the existentialism of Caro and Jeunet’s Delicatessen), would go on to capture the envy of her classmates and an award from the school’s literary magazine.

Writing is difficult.

But not so much so to Faith, that junior. She was unlike many young writers and certainly unlike me at that age. To those learning the craft, adolescents, the writing process of any genre can seem to reveal no reward, little positive self-understanding.

Twirled and twisted by social media, swirling as it does, clear, sustained thought can be elusive for developing minds. Even for more developed minds: as I write now, two social media feeds lie in wait upon the desktop.

I like the challenge of helping young writers become better. That, too, is difficult. Often, though, becoming better has less to do with developing clear, sustained thought, which can be taught, and more to do with the writer unleashing his/her voice, such that in a piece of writing the reader can “hear” the writer’s own unique timbre, especially from piece to piece. To me, humor writers like Twain or Sedaris reveal voice more readily; fiction masters like Morrison, McCarthy, and Faulkner make us work harder for the beauty of their melodies.

For the young writer without much concept of his/her voice, writing can more aptly be like swimming as “small fish in big bowls” of indigestible words, words, words, seeking to express ideas that are barely intelligible to oneself.

If, as many writers and teachers believe, writing reflects the highest creative and critical workings of the brain, should schools be tasked with helping young writers to find their voices? No, many teachers also believe. A writer’s voice cannot be taught, only witnessed. I agree.

However, does that mean that schools should only be tasked with helping young writers to develop clear, sustained thought? No, not exactly.

Experience continues to teach me that the culture of a school has more to do with the young writer unleashing his/her voice than does any teaching. Those qualitative, almost affective, cultural ingredients include

  • How individualized is the learning environment? How conversational with others, including with the teacher and other adults in the school, can the young writer be about his/her individual writing pieces and process?
  • How resilient is the learning environment to experimentation and failure? Do administrators and teachers model resiliency when often experimenting and sometimes failing, including by modeling their own writing for young writers? This type of modeling can instill a profound cultural ingredient, influencing a young writer’s willingness to engage his/her own fears about writing.
  • And, perhaps surprisingly, how competitive is the learning environment? How much do students care about each other’s writing and process — in both an empathic and mildly competitive way? Positive peer pressure can stretch the young writer toward richer expressiveness, helping him/her to understand that growth is possible. The school’s challenge is to develop the right kind of competition, one in which an environment of emotional safety is larger than any sense of competition, providing young writers the atmosphere needed to take risk.

How do public schools develop cultures with the qualitative ingredients that help young people uncover and further develop their voices? Voices that twist and twirl language around creative and critical thought?

There can only be one way: with as much intentionality as they commit to a curriculum that builds the skills of clear, sustained thought in the young writers’ writing.