This essay was published this month in Toad Suck Review
by Greg Graham
I wonder if Emily Dickinson would have been the same Emily Dickinson if she’d had Facebook or Twitter (not to mention TV). I mean, seriously, today’s recluse is an amateur compared to Dickinson. Our idea of being non-social is going home and watching reruns of Friends while flipping through our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram feeds. If we’re feeling anti-social and need to vent, we can sit on our couch and digitally offer scathing opinions about any number of things: books, dishwashers, earphones, politics, religion… the possibilities are endless. Heck, even if your personal life is a wreck, it feels good to score a victory for justice by skewering General Electric because their blender won’t crush ice or by taking on that NRA fanatic who said something stupid on your sister-in-law’s Facebook page.
Others choose not to contribute to their social network, but they’re there, scrolling through the fabulous lives of their Facebook “friends” aka people they barely know or used to know. Especially when we’re going through a hard time, maybe feeling lonely or disconnected because of a break-up or a screw-up, social networks can kick us while we’re down. The writer Stephen Marche caused quite a stir when his article “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely” was published in The Atlantic in May of 2012. The online version of the article has received 367 comments to this point, with the top ranked comment coming from Tow Mater, who offers this insight: “It doesn’t make anyone more lonely or narcissistic it just exposes it more brazenly.” Talk about a letdown. But fear not, countless articles of retort have been written, bearing brilliant titles like “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely? Don’t Be Stupid” and “Facebook Isn’t Making Us Lonely.” Marche’s contentious claim is that we are superconnected but lonelier than ever. He points to the scene in The Social Network of Mark Zuckerberg sending a friend request to an ex-girlfriend and then waiting and clicking and waiting and clicking as emblematic of the day in which we live. “We have all been in that scene,” Marche says, “transfixed by the glare of a screen, hungering for response.”
At least the majority of us have, myself included. And I can’t help but wonder if Ms. Dickinson would be equally sucked into the social networking vortex if she lived among us today. If she was writing on a laptop instead of in a notebook, would she have been taken out of what she called “the hallowing of pain”? Would she have striven to reach “the Summit” she spoke of if the social life she could not enjoy was available to her through digital images and electronic chit-chat popping up or scrolling across her screen in the comfort of her home? It’s a fair question, I think.
I’m writing these words the same way Dickinson wrote—with a pen on paper, tucked away in my bedroom away from all my screens. But I won’t be here long: I’ll soon mosey into the kitchen where my laptop is sitting and I’ll check my Twitter feed (Yay! Somebody with 2971 followers followed me! I am somebody). I’ll look to see if anybody retweeted my last tweet, then I’ll flip over to see how many likes my most recent blog post has garnered. I’ll probably check to see if my favorite baseball team is winning, then glance at my email. Now what was that thing I was writing?
I wonder what Ms. Dickinson would think of me. She’d probably regard me as one of those about whom she wrote “The Summit is not given to him who strives severe at the middle of the hill, But He who has achieved the Top — All — is the price of All.” The top she speaks of is not being the “top author” or “best poet.” On the contrary, the top for her is pure inspiration, which she achieved because she stared down her loneliness, which she called “the icycles of the soul.” And she describes reaching the top in ecstatic language:
Deprived of other Banquet,
I entertained Myself –
At first — a scant nutrition –
An insufficient Loaf –
But grown by slender addings
To so esteemed a size
‘Tis sumptuous enough for me –
And almost to suffice …
This attainment of pure inspiration put into words on paper was enough for Dickinson. She shied away from publication. “Publication,” she said, “is the auction of the mind.” Well, if that be the case, count me as a big sellout, because as soon as I write something half-decent I’m scrounging for publishers. Between the pieces of writing I manage to get published, I write blog posts and send tweets like I’m throwing fishing lures into the water. I put it out there and pray for a nibble.
The propensity for fast and furious self-publication and self-promotion can weaken the strength of our work. And Emily Dickinson and I are not the only ones who think this way. Recording artist John Mayer had four million followers on Twitter and one day decided Twitter was taking over his creative life, so he quit. When asked why, Mayer responed:
The tweets are getting shorter, but the songs are still
4 minutes long. You’re coming up with 140-character
zingers, and the song is still 4 minutes long…I
realized about a year ago that I couldn’t have a complete thought
anymore. And I was a tweetaholic. I had four million Twitter
followers, and I was always writing on it. And I stopped using
Twitter as an outlet and I started using Twitter as the instrument to
riff on, and it started to make my mind smaller and smaller and
smaller. And I couldn’t write a song.”
Using Dickinson’s language, it seems Mayer found himself stopping midway. He was no longer reaching the Summit, and drastic measures had to be taken.
I’m impressed. Hell, I think I’ll write a blog post about it. I bet people will really like that one. Wait… Oh, what’s the use; I’ll probably keep blogging and tweeting and begging somebody to publish my stuff. After all, I’m pretty sure I’m not the next Mayer or Dickinson or Thoreau. I’ve been working on one poem for four years now and it still sucks.
But I do worry about the Dickinsons and Thoreaus of the future. We can argue whether or not Facebook and Instagram are making all of us lonelier, but what about the ones who are naturally loners? Are image-focused social media keeping them in a perpetual state of pseudo-sociality, never satisfying but knocking the edge off? Is contentment harder to attain when surrounded by a virtual collection of beautiful people living fabulous lives? Most of us have probably found ourselves feeling down with nothing to do and flipping through Facebook, becoming more convinced that our lives suck: Our children are not as beautiful or successful, our parents don’t love each other as much, our spouse isn’t as hot, the list goes on and on. Sucked in by the compulsive desire for acceptance, self-loathing turns to virtual self-mutilation. It hurts so good.
Before everyone got plugged into everything, loners often learned to find contentment in solitude. The longing for connection has always been there for human beings, but today connection has become a digitally mediated impulse purchase. You don’t have to go looking for it; you’re just standing there in the check-out line and it’s staring you in the face like a pack of gum.
How many loner types in the past went on to become brilliant writers, artists, or spiritual leaders? One has to wonder if Dickinson would have written such painfully beautiful poetry if she had access to Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Rather than scratching out meaning on those well-worn writing pads, she could’ve sat staring at endless pictures of acquaintances living the life she was apparently unable to manage.
I’m glad she didn’t. Where would we be without the gritty ones who went through the fire and came back bearing gifts for the rest of us? And what does our future look like if the hero’s journey is repeatedly being short-circuited by ever-present social networks? Who will persevere in the aloneness long enough to have scars to show and stories to tell, offering up something sublime out of the thick darkness?
I wish I would have written this… Greg
Originally posted on Diane Ravitch's blog:
This post was written by Don Batt, an English teacher in Colorado:
There is a monster waiting for your children in the spring. Its creators have fashioned it so that however children may prepare for it, they will be undone by its clever industry.
The children know it’s coming. They have encountered it every year since third grade, and every year it has taken parts of their souls. Not just in the spring. Everyday in class, the children are asked which answer is right although the smarter children realize that sometimes there are parts of several answers that could be right.
Alicia Weaver was my student in freshman writing Fall of 2013. With her permission, I’d like to share her end-of-semester reflection. I’m proud to say that Alicia ignored my writing prompts for this essay and instead crafted a powerful statement on the power of writing essays filled with personal meaning compared to writing expository essays meant to demonstrate proficiency. Enjoy!
My Journey in Writing
by Alicia Weaver
When I came to college I knew I would change; I knew I would learn more about myself. However, I never imagined that writing would be a part of it. Growing up, writing was never an outlet, only a tool. Writing was for demonstrating that you understood the subject. Writing was for passing AP tests and the ACT. Writing was what you did when you finished learning about something. Writing was a regurgitation of absorbed information and proof of proficiency and progress. I don’t know when writing became this bland definition. In my childhood, I wrote almost every day. I kept a daily journal, detailing all of the events of my life. I described my emotions at the time and thought about the future, and I remember feeling better afterward. I remember the relief of letting out pent up frustration in hurried, messy handwriting. For some reason though, I never thought of it as writing. Writing was for school papers or famous authors or poets. I also never thought of writing as an outlet. Music could be an outlet, or sports, but not writing. My journal wasn’t significant; to me, it was simply a matter of habit.
Coming to college, I imagined having to repeat the same regurgitated essays in my classes, or listening to boring lectures. The idea of my first personal narrative even freaked me out a little. My essay couldn’t be boring! It was a reflection of me. The idea of writing from my own perspective was terrifying. It seemed to be a little too, well, personal. I had several ideas to write about but none of them were good enough to commit to. When I was finally struck with the idea of my paper, I sat down at my computer and tried simply giving a synopsis of that time in my life, but it wasn’t all I had. I finally had to reach down deep and bring out the true emotions. What had seemed so scary was so relieving. I sat and typed most of it in one setting. It was like venting to a journal as a kid, only better. I wanted my reader to understand where I was and how it had changed me. When I was finished, I straightened up in my chair and was excited (and still a little nervous) for someone to read it. To my surprise, those who did read it enjoyed it. As someone who takes pride in their work, the praise of others only made the experience better.
I never imagined having a class that encouraged enjoying writing. I had forgotten I could even write that way. Though I know that personal essays are not the only sort of writing I will do, it is good to remember that writing is not black and white. Writing is an art with many colors. Writing is a journey.
Since I use the portfolio method of teaching freshman writing, the end of semester can be brutal. Trudging through 80 portfolios in a few days is agonizing, especially when you see students who didn’t step up and put forth their best effort. However, their end-of-semester reflections always hold a few gems that keep my batteries charged.
Here’s a couple of inspiring excerpts from student reflections:
Jessica: “Unlike previous teachers, I felt as if the work we did was actually important instead of it being just another assignment. Also unlike previous classes I have had, I never heard a bad word about someone’s writing that was just outright malicious and unhelpful. This lead to a more comfortable class and gave me confidence to read without fear of being called out on how awful my paper sounded… Coming in I was worried because my last English teacher had torn up my work and told me I was writing at a Jr. High level, but my fears were soon calmed… Starting off writing personal essays was an extremely positive thing for me, as it is a passion of mine to write stories. It allowed me to jump into something that I was comfortable with, and show my voice and writing style, while still getting accommodated with the feel of the class and what was expected…
The one thing I would definitely never change about this class is the way you grade. Though it’s a little nerve-wracking not knowing what your grade is on each essay, I have never had a more helpful class setup than this. Allowing us to turn in our papers without it being given a final grade, and thoroughly going over it as you do with extremely helpful feedback, for me added up to some of the best papers I have ever produced, and ones I plan on keeping for quite a while.
Abigail: “The class began for me with a realization that maybe I wasn’t such a great writer. Throughout the semester, I’ve been working my writing muscles, and gaining strength. Now, I can confidently say that, although writing isn’t the most fun ever, I do enjoy it and I am sure of my abilities in being able to craft what I want to say in an appealing way…
My first semester of college is now about over. Time is flying at the rate it always does, but with each year that passes, I get more and more aware of it slipping through my fingers, This writing class challenged me. Not only in my writing, but in the way I think and view things. My perspective is a bit wider and a bit clearer. I would say the most important thing I’ve learned is that writing has a sound. It has a feeling. Writing is heard, maybe not by the ears, but certainly by the soul.”
The following article was published this week in Teachers and Writers Magazine.
Writing by Hand to Create a Deeper Engagement in the Classroom
In an age when digital literacy is viewed as the holy grail of education, and when teachers are urged to jump aboard the digitrain or get run over by it, Heather Sellers is one of the few voices bucking the trend, extolling the benefits she says come with writing the way human beings have written since they became literate: by hand.
Sellers, a professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and author of the critically acclaimed memoir You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, which details her lifelong struggle with face-blindness, believes students who write by hand produce superior work, so she requires handwritten first drafts of each assignment. Sellers says she stumbled onto the fact that writing by hand can make a huge difference in the quality of written work. After noticing stark variations in quality in students’ submissions to her writing class, she wanted to know if there was something about their approaches that made a difference, so she asked the writers how they worked. Three of them had submitted work that Sellers regarded as “stunning—prose that read more like poetry.” When she asked them about their writing process, each of them said they had written their stories by hand. In contrast, Sellers found that all of the weaker authors had written their drafts on a computer. There were a couple of students in the middle whose work was a mixed bag. Their descriptions of how they wrote, says Sellers, were revealing:
“There were these two stories that had some great parts, and some flat parts. ‘I wonder if you mind saying a few words about your process,’ I asked these two writers. I still remember their names. Chantelle said, ‘Well, I started hand-writing. But then I got behind, and it was due, and so I typed the rest, but the opening, the scene at the restaurant, and the ending were done by hand.’ Those were the EXACT same sections I’d pegged as thrumming, as memorable, as real. Charlie said the same thing–parts were done by hand, parts on the computer. The class was stunned when I showed him that I could tell which parts he’d hand-written first and which sections he’d typed.”
Sellers says this was a transformational moment for her, one she shares with each new incoming class. In her disarmingly warm and engaging style, she preaches the gospel of handwriting to every digital native who walks through her door. And she meets less resistance than one might expect. Make no mistake about it—her approach is a radical one. More than merely writing by hand, Sellers’s students start out writing with markers in giant all capital letters. The reason? “We go really, really, really slowly.” Surely college students balk at these elementary school practices? Surely these media multitaskers gripe and moan about this tedious work? According to Sellers, quite the opposite:
“I think we are all just working so hard to try to put something meaningful together… it’s easy to get caught up in the energy of that. Here’s the thing: You know why we write by hand? Why we keep doing it? It’s fun. It was fun when we were little kids, and it’s fun now. It’s fun to have markers and pens, and great sheets of paper, and to paint with words. And it is fun to concentrate. Any athlete knows that. Readers know that, lovers know that, kids know that.”
Though Sellers’s evidence for the benefits of writing by hand is anecdotal, recent research supports her findings. Gwendolen Bounds’ excellent Wall Street Journal article “How Handwriting Trains the Brain” (October 2010) cited multiple studies on the importance of writing by hand: Neurologists at the University of Indiana found more advanced neural activity in children when they wrote by hand as opposed to typing. An educational psychologist at the University of Washington found that 2nd, 4th, and 6th graders in a study there “expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand versus using a keyboard to compose.” In her Wall Street Journal article, Bounds also quotes a neuroscientist at Duke University who says “as [aging] people lose writing skills and migrate to the computer, retraining people in handwriting skills could be a useful cognitive exercise.”
“Writing by hand really works, and I just want to make sure we don’t lose this method,” says Sellers. “The process can help our students retain their individual thinking, get them in touch with their voice, and, also, help them understand the hard, slow work it is to write. Writing simply takes an enormous amount of time. Writing by hand is a realistic pace for making something out of words. It forces one to slow down and stay connected to the sensory and sensual moments that come from the deepest part of one’s self. I know this sounds weird, but I have seen the results.”
In her creative writing classes, whether fiction, non-fiction, or poetry, Sellers emphasizes the importance of taking one’s time by making a connection between writing and drawing: before her students even start writing, she asks them to take fifteen minutes or so to make a sketch of the scene they want to create. When they are done, she has them list all of the sensory details in the picture. “I think there has to be a kind of building stage before we get to the thinking stage,” she says. “In working by hand, I tell my students, you are creating the containers where you will eventually do your thinking. If you are just thinking, on a screen, where you can write so fast and erase so fast, it’s kind of like Frost’s thing of playing tennis without a net.”
Sellers describes those quickly typed up pieces of writing that students often produce as “phoned in.” She explains “You know in ‘bad acting’ how it doesn’t seem like the actor is that person he is playing—it seems…fake? That’s how computer generated first drafts can seem: too-fast thinking, a gliding over the surface, typos, hard-to-understand sentences and arguments.” Writing by hand, Sellers has found, serves as a governor to keep the writer from speeding past the necessary steps in the writing process. “This is very much a process of seeing what it is you know,” she says, “getting your mind on the page, without the interference of the editor, the fake voices, the cleaner-upper, the conformist.”
Educational theorist and philosopoher Paulo Freire defined literacy as “critical engagement with world and word.” Sellers believes writing by hand can improve literacy by deepening students’ engagement with word and world.
“I’m trying to create a reverence for the process,” she says. “I’m looking to be part of a culture of quiet and contemplation. My students get addicted to our in-class hand writing sessions. They have to do the handwriting thing for thirty minutes a day for thirty days. For many of them, it’s the only time in the day they are alone. It’s a form of meditation, right? To sit with oneself and discover what’s in there. Writing by hand, then, is a great way, of creating a conversation with oneself. That’s vital for the first year writer—maybe the most vital thing.”
As the author of three books on the craft of writing, Sellers frequently travels to read and speak around the country. When she tells other writing instructors about her practice of requiring handwritten first drafts, the responses range from intrigued to incredulous. “Some people freak,” she says. “And I’m not sure writing by hand is right for every teacher, every writer, every classroom. I just want to make sure we don’t lose methods that really work.”
Sellers knows full well the challenge of convincing students to commit the time necessary to do “the hard slow work it is to write,” but she also sees what this gives them. “I teach the sonnet in all my poetry workshops,” she says, “and at first the students complain mightily about how much time writing the sonnet takes. Yes, I say. This is how much time a poem takes. This is the right amount. Then, they produce their best work of the semester in these sonnets and they realize: it’s worth it. It’s worth spending this much time on a poem. And I think that lesson transfers to composing an essay, a memo, a letter—to all writing.”
For additional information:
As most teachers know, every class has its own personality. That is certainly true for me, as I feature the texts and voices of the students in my writing classroom. They are the primary text.
The group I’ve taught this semester every Tuesday and Thursday at 8:00 A.M. is very special, and one of the reasons is a 31-year-old father and auto parts store manager who decided to come back to school. Early in the semester, he wrote a beautiful piece about his deceased grandfather. I asked him if he wanted to share it with his classmates. He was willing, but couldn’t do it without breaking down, so he handed it to a classmate and had them read it. That piece of writing, along with some others from that exceptional group, helped set the tone going forward. Game on.
Below is an email I received last week from Justin. With his permission, I’m passing it on to you. My goal, as always, is to make the case for the value of the personal narrative in the writing classroom.
I just wanted to let you know how appreciative I am of you. Through my experiences in life people are quick to let you know your shortcomings and failures, but for some reason we hold back when it comes to praise. When I walked to class on the first morning of my college career I didn’t quite know what to expect. I imagined that these entry level classes I was required to take would be a complete waste of my time. My perception was sorely mistaken. You have taken a class that would have had absolutely no meaning and made it very personal. Thanks to your guidance on our personal narratives you turned what would have been a mundane string of meaningless words and sentences into a tribute to the greatest man I have ever known. Thanks to you I was flooded with memories of my Grandfather that I had nearly forgotten. There is no amount of words that I could use to let you know how much those memories and that paper means to me. Thank you for your passion, your praise, and your guidance. Your class has been one that I will never forget.