If You Can Speak, You Can Write

I wrote about this topic (under the same title) on my own blog last year, but I felt the need to go back and explain a little further exactly what I mean.

As I’ve discovered over and over again through the years, teenagers love to talk. They often come into the classroom full of ideas and stories to share. They can talk for hours on end–and would do so happily, if I allowed it. But when it comes to expressing their ideas and stories on paper, I’ll often hear, “I can’t think of anything,” from kids who usually have quite a lot to say.

I have written before about “Evan”, the student who used to come in early and chat with me about frustrating video game endings, bizarre halloween costumes, and annoying younger siblings. Evan would walk into the room each day with a cheerful “Hi, Ms. Goas!” and immediately launch into a long, detailed story of what happened that morning or the previous weekend. I found him to be an intelligent, polite young man, and looked forward to his chipper greetings each morning.

Bright and articulate as Evan was, he came very close to failing my class. The main problem was that he wouldn’t complete a single writing assignment. Not the morning freewriting journal, not the literary essays, not even the three-line synonym poems we did on short school days that should have scored easy A’s. I have rarely seen a student’s personality change so drastically in such a short period of time. Evan would go on and on about whatever was on his mind each day, but as soon as the bell rang he’d stare into space with a blank page in front of him.

I walked by his desk often to ask why he wasn’t writing during freewriting time.

“Sorry, Ms. Goas. I’m thinking.” He was never impolite, and never sounded as miserable as he looked.

“Remember, Evan, for this activity, you can write about anything you want.”

“I know. But I can’t think of anything.”

That’s not true! I wanted to scream, but kept my voice calm. “Well, why don’t you write about the way your little brother hid your iPod this morning? Remember that story you were just telling me?” Not two minutes ago?

Evan would nod, and he might even manage to squeeze out a few words. The next day he’d come back in with another exciting story to tell, and the cycle would begin all over again. If I could ever figure out how to help a student like Evan, I’m sure I could destroy a major stumbling block for most of my writing students.

Teenagers are not the only ones with this problem. Over the years, friends and relatives have enlisted me for help with their e-mail, holiday card, and resume writing needs. “I want to say this,” they’ll tell me, and they’ll go on to explain their ideas firmly and eloquently. “Now, how can I write that?”

“Write what you just said,” I’ll reply. And suddenly, they stutter and hesitate as they struggle to express the exact same thought.

Perhaps folks are afraid of the lasting quality of the written word. After all, spoken words have a way of sort of vanishing into the air. When they’re gone, they’re gone–and if they were silly, repetitive or unnecessary, it simply doesn’t matter anymore.

But written words sit there like dark stains against an otherwise pristine background. We all tend to worry that our thoughts and ideas will never be brilliant enough to justify that kid of permanency. Why go to all that trouble to write words on a page, we think, when the words are only going to serve as contant reminders of how dull we really are?

“I don’t want to write my idea,” a student will say, time and time again. “Can’t I just explain it to you?”

This year, I’m going to require my students to pass notes to each other from time to time. The students will be broken up into groups of two or three, and will perhaps be asked to discuss a short story or current event. The only requirement will be that they may not speak, and all communication between group members must be written down. We’ll see how it goes.

Adults who struggle with writing can practice this activity, too. Sit down and write out your side of a conversation you’d like to have with someone else. Don’t plan, don’t edit as you go, don’t worry about whether or not you’re adequately displaying your brilliance. Just write what you would say to that person if you were speaking out loud. Don’t think about sharing this conversation with anyone; just write and see what happens.

Remember, you do this same thing several times a day, every day of your life.

There’s no reason why you can’t learn to be just as comfortable on paper.

Next Week: Backyards and Babysteps

Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site saragoas.com has more examples of her work.


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