Transforming “I Can’t Write.”

Sarah DeBacher | August 31, 2015

For years I have been teaching my students a lesson that – until recently – I didn’t realize was a bad one. I had this epiphany while leading a workshop at Homer A. Plessy Community School, an arts-integrated elementary school here in New Orleans.

During a discussion, one of the teachers said, “I really wish we could stop standing in front of our kids and saying ‘I can’t draw,’ or ‘I can’t play music,’ or ‘I can’t whatever.'”

I could remember the exact last time I did this. I’d been teaching my freshman writing class about the I Can't Drawimportance of a “down draft” or what Anne Lamott calls a “Sh*tty First Draft,” which I compared to an artist’s sketch. I’d picked up a piece of chalk to demonstrate the kind of tentative, experimental strokes of an artist’s sketch on the chalkboard – experimental because the artist is exploring, working to discover whether to commit to a painting on a canvas – when, upon drawing a wonky, half-formed dinosaur, I declared, “I can’t draw.”

At Plessy Community School, we’d had this conversation just before a break, and on that break I got to thinking. Perhaps because I’d been guilty of the exact same behavior, I immediately began rationalizing it. Some woo-woo guru might forgivingly suggest that I was doing otherwise – that I was “assuming positive intent” of the teachers who, like me, lean on the whole “I can’t” business for laudable goals. And there really IS one: when a teacher says “I can’t,” he levels the playing field, knocks down a notch the power that is inherently placed in his teacherly hands.

But saying “I can’t draw” implies that being able to draw – like being able to write, play music, paint, whatever – is a fixed skill or gift that you either can or can’t do, know/don’t know, or were/weren’t born with. It’s not.

Writing isn’t a subject you know. Writing is something you DO. And I don’t mean in this in the one-and-done sense that drives students to become what GNOWP’s co-director, Ari Zeiger, calls assignment completers. These are the students who are so teacher dependent they come to us, fearful of taking even the tiniest of free-written risks, and say, “What do I have to do to get an ‘A’?” or “Just tell me what you want.”

Not only is writing something you DO, it requires a doing-with-abandon that is truly all-encompassing. Ann Berthoff calls this an allatonceness. As in, you don’t learn to ride a bike by practicing gripping the handlebars, then another day working with the pedals. You get on and go.

GNOWP Teacher Consultant Desi Richter has a brilliant analogy for the difference between knowing and doing. This summer she asked the GNOWP Summer Institute fellows, “How many of you know how to play the piano?” Several hands went up. Then she asked, “How many of you actually DO play the piano?” All but one hand went down.

Who was it who said the difference between real writers and the rest of us is that writers write? I’m thinking that person was seriously onto something. I’m thinking we’re aiming for DO-ers, not knowers, when we teach writing. To put this another way, we’re actually not teaching writing. We’re teaching writers.

Back to break time at Plessy School where I’d realized that, yes, there really was positive intent behind saying “I can’t X.” But what could be said, instead? It occurred to me that if we want to teach writing as something we do rather than something we know – we’d do better to talk about it in narrative terms. And a good sentence starter for doing that might be, “When I write…”

So when I draw in front of my students again, I won’t say “I can’t draw.” I’ll say, “When I draw, I feel like my lines are a bit wobbly.” And when I write with my students, I’ll talk about it this way: “When I write, I sometimes struggle to get started,” or “When I write, I feel so great when I capture one of my thoughts with words.” And then, because I want them to see themselves as writers doing things with writing, the conversation will continue: “Do any of you feel this way?” I’ll say. And then I’ll go, “What do you DO?”