Teaching With the Most Unteachable Things

Source: www.mivamerchant.com

Source: www.mivamerchant.com

After writing on my circulatory reading — an experience prompting me less toward "progress" than toward a gathering of more experience — I have Virginia Woolf's voice in my mind's ear, talking about the circulation of words:

Everyone who has ever written a sentence must be conscious or half-conscious of it. Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations — naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today — that they are so stored with meanings, with memories, that they have contracted so many famous marriages.

This is from Woolf's essay "Craftsmanship," in which she gets right down to the ever-present challenge to writers — to students, to anyone — making the effort to create something fresh out of and inside of their lines and sentences: "How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth? That is the question." 

I'll set aside the next question — what Woolf means, exactly, by beauty and truth — for another blog post, or maybe a dissertation. What compels me now, because of my ongoing interest in designing approaches to encourage students toward fundamental verbal sensitivity and sensibilities, is the basic notion of discovering the new from a recombination of the old.

I'm reminded of watching past students of mine play with word magnets — how the unfixed, individual tiles drew their fingers, how ready the waiting words seemed for a new position. Students delighted in the play because, I think, of how free — how unguided, undirected, without destination — they felt as they went about making something new, or seeing what there might be to make. How comfortably distant they felt from the usual expectation to create specific, shareable meaning from language. How continually new the play felt (and how stale and laborious their own writing — with pen or keyboard — could feel to them in comparison).

It strikes me as appropriate to write about word magnets in the past tense: they seem to have slipped from most refrigerators, haven't they? (Oh, to think of all those isolated words in the dark and dust under fridges, helplessly alone yet with such potential!) Perhaps they have disappeared from most classrooms, too. I can't help thinking of them as not last year's toy but last decade's toy, no matter how many new themed sets are made available — for the dog lover, the vampire lover, the geek, the zombie. As kitschy and dated as they've become, they offered players an important space for development toward versatility and agility as writers, as sentence-makers; and as I write I am realizing how much they inform my desire to invent fresh ways of encountering the inventive possibilities of language, and also to make visible and possibly audible what actually goes on when one writes or tries to write imaginatively. Artfully.

"Think what it would mean if you could teach, if you could learn, the art of writing," Woolf continues in "Craftsmanship."  

But there is, it would appear, some obstacle in the way, some hindrance to the teaching of words. For though at this moment at least a hundred professors are lecturing upon the literature of the past, at least a thousand critics are reviewing the literature of the present, and hundreds upon hundreds of young men and women are passing examinations in English literature with the utmost credit, still — do we write better, do we read better than we read and wrote four hundred years ago when we were unlectured, uncriticized, untaught?

Woolf lays the blame "[n]ot on our professors; not on our reviewers; not on our writers; but on words. It is words that are to blame. They are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things." 

This wild, free, irresponsible, unteachable quality of words is something to take advantage of, to work with. What better material could there be for active experimentation and potential discovery (the possibly meaningful effects of new pairings — rhythms, sounds, echoes, associations)? I realize that to encourage a perspective on words as unfixed, individual, moveable things, and to sustain a playful motivation to keep words in experimental movement, is of particular interest not only because students often find it very difficult to revise, to pick up and reposition words they've already set down. My interest has also grown from my observations of my own young (not-yet-writing) children at play. They handle "old" objects — wooden blocks, stones they've gathered — and, with attention to the objects' individual shapes and sizes, playfully experiment with different arrangements, and unfailingly they make pleasing, and, yes, meaningful discoveries. Pleasing and meaningful to them, and meaningful because of the discovery, the never-seen-before quality. What's most important at the start for a young student handling words is not how shareable whatever meaning he or she creates is but rather how spirited his or her engagement is in making something new, and, in doing so, gathering verbal experience and discoveries.

The material — words — may be wild and irresponsible, but thank the heavens! Invention waits. Writing, you always find yourself, as Verlyn Klinkenborg puts it, "making discoveries you never could have predicted, finding thoughts you never knew existed because they didn't exist until you were exploring sentences for their implicit possibilities." (Several Short Sentences About Writing)