Take It From a Teacher:

You Are a Writer

Friday, December 7, 2018 by Stacey Dallas Johnston

Stacey Dallas Johnston is a UNLV Alumnus and a guest contributor to the UNLV Writing Center blog.

I have always loved to write. I have also always felt that I was good at it. At least I felt that when I wrote, it sounded better than the real me. The voice in my head while I sat back and read something that I had written always sounded like it came from a better, smarter, more eloquent me. This kept me writing. When I became a high school English teacher, I wanted to instill a love of writing in all of my students. May be a lofty goal, but I wanted my students to have that feeling, the one where you read something you’ve written and feel proud.

Be it poems, personal essays, short stories, or the start of a would-be novel, getting into the zone, producing a piece of writing, has been a lifelong endeavor of mine that has stayed constant regardless of decade, hairstyle, traumas, wins and losses. I know I have produced some pretty cringe-worthy pieces, teen angst poetry for example, but at the time, I was proud of it. I hear so many people say things like, “I’m not a writer”, or “Writing isn’t my thing.” I agree and disagree at the same time. Not everyone is a “writer.” We won’t all produce the great American novel and be awarded accolades for our linguistic genius. Myself included. However, the majority of us are guided and encouraged to write from a very young age. No K-12 school has a no-writing philosophy. It’s the sweet spot in between that is often missing. How do educators not just teach writing, but encourage it, while also holding up the integrity of the writing process?

I know that writing is important. It is cathartic. I can bring joy, and healing. Many kids don't even see the connection between “writing” and their favorite movie or song. I guess when I was in high school, I had more important things to focus on than the origin story of all the John Hughes films. I knew early on that I wanted to write. Maybe not as a career, but just to do it. It wasn’t until high school that I really got serious. I did okay in English class, but it was creative writing that lit my fire and made me want to dedicate my free time to putting words on paper. I was given the opportunity to write original material for my high school theatre improv group, and I was sold. The feeling of creating was only topped by watching others bring my words to life. I dabbled in poetry and short stories as well, but needless to say, I was on a writing roll that would not soon stop.

As I ventured into college, totally at a loss about what I wanted to be when I grew up, I dabbled a bit there too. After trying on a major or two, I declared that I was ready to commit my life, or at least most of it, to English. Despite a rigorous reading schedule—and the obligation to write more academic papers then I ever thought I would—,it was a good call. Keep in mind that I was a first-generation college goer, and I did not own a computer. Those long, beautiful papers were mostly produced on a table-top word processor or a typewriter. Call me Mrs. Hemingway, it sounds much cooler than poor kid without a computer. Nevertheless, she persisted.

My love for personal and creative writing did not wane in college, but I honestly didn’t have the time that I used to. However, I kept a notebook, or many a notebook, and recorded thoughts as they came to me. Some became poems and stories thanks to some guidance from the UNLV English department, but many ideas never lived beyond the notebooks that sit in my office to this day. But, the ideas were always there, and the potential they had to someday be born into something great was always there.

There are two pieces of advice that I garnered during my years at UNLV: “writing is about revision”, and “trust the process.” These educational aphorisms have not only stuck with me and guided my own work, but I have had the pleasure of repeating them time and time again to my own students. As a high school English teacher, and in my personal writing, these two things were part of both my teaching and my learning.

“Writing is about Revision.” I wholeheartedly believe this, and at the same time, have grappled with the reality of it in academic settings. When I was in the classroom, I adopted a workshop approach to writing, allowing my students to nurture their writing and learn to accept constructive feedback to initiate improvement. I did this, but it wasn’t the norm. Though the writing process is used in some way or the other in most classrooms, it can look different from teacher to teacher. The time to revise might be there, but, as novice writers, many students don’t know how or why to make revisions. They need feedback and time and are often shorted on both.

“Trust the Process.” Another golden piece of writing advice that can sometimes be a hard sell, because in order to trust the process, there needs to be a process. Brainstorm-rough draft-peer review-final draft-summative grade is a pretty standard process in high school. In my college experience, I was mostly just asked for a final draft. As an educator, I found that my students not only didn’t trust the process, they didn’t even know the process. They had been so conditioned to get their writing done that what they were actually putting down on paper was an afterthought. Some managed to use this system with no negative consequences. They knew big words, and had a strong enough grasp on syntax and grammar, that they could produce a decent paper in one shot. I have to admit, this worked for me in college as well.

I am no longer in the classroom, but after having had over 3,500 students pass though my classroom door, I have a pretty solid perspective on what academic writing looks like for teens and undergrads. Even if they like to write, they don't always enjoy writing for school. They don't see that they can weave in elements of creative writing into most other genres, elements such as voice and figurative language. They feel oppressed by writing rules, so much so that they often can't produce a piece of writing for fear of it being wrong or bad.

I’m not a college English professor (though I’d like to be), but I am someone who has put pen to paper for over four decades, and someone who has worked with thousands of students in grades 6-12, at the remedial level all the way to Advanced Placement. I’ve created and implemented an enrichment program for students called “Rebel Writers: Writers with a Cause” in an effort to get teens writing beyond the classroom. I still love to write, and I only hope that more people, students in particular, will advocate for the ideas of revision and process to be more the norm than something reserved for coffee shop writing groups and creative types. Our words are powerful, and, when written down, they can be transformative and inspiring, not only for the writer but for those invited to read them. The greatest thing about educational practice is that there are tried and true methods as well as evolution. If you want to learn to be a great writer, remember to give yourself the space to become one, even if it’s not on the syllabus.