“So, are you a writer?”
I will fully admit that the question was a test.
We were walking into day one of a two week Colorado Writing Project workshop, having just met and introduced ourselves in the parking lot. She knew I would be co-teaching the workshop, a new Teacher Consultant with CWP. And yet. . .
“Well, no. . . I wouldn’t say I’m a writer. . . I mean, I do enjoy writing. . . but no, I’m not a writer.” This experienced and confident educator’s body language completely changed—head down, not making eye contact, shifting her bag on her shoulder.
I am fascinated by this reaction. Every time. Why is it so difficult for so many educators to simply say, “Yes, I’m a writer.”
We don’t hesitate in the same way when asked if we are readers. I’ve never heard an educator (or any adult, for that matter) stumble around with a, “Well, you know, I can read, of course. . . but I wouldn’t really say I’m a reader. I mean, I’m certainly not a professional reader.”
I wonder, what does being a writer imply to those who are hesitant to claim the title?
- Does it mean published?
- Does it mean writing as a process is quick and easy?
- Do we have to be “good at writing” (and judged by who?) in order to consider ourselves writers?
There seems to be an unreasonable level of expertise required to claim the identity of writer that we do not expect of other content areas that we teach. There also seem to be some serious misconceptions about how level of challenge relates to level of skill.
I would argue that the process of writing is always challenging; there is not an imaginary line we cross after which all writing becomes cake. If we hold an unrealistic expectation that one day we will wake up and just be able to write, no struggle or false starts or pesky revisions necessary—if in the back of our minds that’s what being a writer means—then of course we will never reach “writer” status.
This is important, because what we believe about writing translates into what kids believe.
If “good at writing” is equivalent to “writing is easy” in our minds and in the minds of our students, it’s no wonder so many of our kids don’t self-identify as writers.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked to write something for a group or team—perhaps an article, promotional materials, a letter—with what is surely meant as a compliment: “You’re such a writer. It will be so much easier for you, and it will turn out so much better than if I/we did it.”
What I want to say (but rarely do), is that, yes, I can write it. And, yes, it will (eventually) be a piece of writing I am proud to share. And it will take me six hours. It’s not magic, and it’s not because I’m a “writer.” But because I’m a writer (and I understand how my writing process works), I’m willing to invest six hours writing and revising until I craft something that far surpasses anything I could have written in half an hour.
Those extra five and a half hours are what make me a writer.
It’s expecting and embracing the challenge that makes me a writer.
How can we be transparent with kids about this reality when we haven’t experienced it (and don’t yet understand it) ourselves?
Circling back to my new colleague in the parking lot, I was hopeful. I knew we would be spending the next two weeks together, immersed in our own authentic writing lives as well as diving deep into the research around best instructional practices for teaching young writers. I was curious to see how much might shift in this time for this particular teacher. Would she see herself as a writer by the end? (I certainly hoped so!)
I genuinely want to understand (because it matters so so much): What does it take for a teacher to flip that switch, to go from not-really-a-writer to writer? Capital W. Period. What might it take for our students to flip that same switch?