Embracing vulnerability: Talking honestly about the writing process

by Katie Sluiter

I have been trying to write this piece for days. Ok, actually weeks. It’s been rolling around in my head while I fold laundry, dust the house, and organize bedroom closets. I don’t even like cleaning, but my house is spotless. I can see the deadline for this piece on my calendar. It’s even circled, and yet, I find myself doing anything but write.

I have also binge-watched multiple seasons of Netflix shows in record time, plus I made muffins, cookies, bread, and other treats from scratch.

My name is Katie and I am a writing procrastinator.

In fact, most of the time I feel like a complete fraud. Once it’s time to stop procrastinating and start writing I start thinking, I can’t do this. My writing is terrible. Why do people continually believe I can write? They are eventually going to find out that I am not really very good at this. And thus, my cycle of procrastination begins.

But when I teach writing, I’m not ashamed of the procrastination. In fact, I remember it. I model it.

I tell my students that every single time I get a writing assignment, at some point in the process I feel like a failure. I feel like I can’t do it. And I procrastinate it. I do what their teachers have repeatedly told them not to do. For years I tried to break myself of these habits; it’s only recently that I have embraced them as part of my process. Now I strive to teach my students how to also use the procrastination and negative voices that lurk in their own heads as part of their writing processes.

Using Self-Talk & Procrastination as Productive Pre-writing

First I share my self-talk with them: the good and the bad. I share how I’ve reframed my procrastination into my “think tank time”.  For instance, my eighth graders are currently writing “This I Believe” essays, so I am writing one too. One of the first things we did was create a list of things that finish this statement: “I believe in…” I share with them my inner talk while I model for them how I do mine. It usually sounds like this: What if I put something on this list that the students think is stupid? What if everyone else puts the same thing as I do? Ugg. I don’t know what to put! Ok, I’m just going to make a fast list. If it’s dumb, I can change it later, right?

After reading some This I Believe essays from the website, I tell them they are going to write their own. They will take one of the things they believe, turn it into a statement, and then turn it into a 500-600 word essay. I give them a time frame for when we need to choose our one belief and have a statement ready. Frequently I check in during that time period. I ask who has thought it over, and who is procrastinating, and I talk through my procrastination too, to show them they are not alone. That the time between now and the deadline is for rolling it over in their head, which can be done during procrastination.

Talking About Writing  to Draw Out Ideas

Usually when I am in procrastination-mode, I turn to social media. My students can definitely relate to this. I usually throw a status update on my newsfeed or in a Facebook group or on Twitter that is something like, “Ugg. Deadline looming.” Rather than end up a total waste of time, I explain that those updates tend to turn into a conversation about my piece. People question me and draw ideas out of me. For instance, I posted both on my personal Facebook page and my blog page asking people to finish the statement, “I believe…”  

image of facebook thread

 

To illustrate this in class, I will pull a student to the front of the room with me to model how the “drawing out” usually goes. I have the student say a “status update” that he/she would put if they were procrastinating the current writing assignment we have. Then I ask a bunch of questions, eliciting responses from the student. Most times, the student that volunteers to do this “fishbowl” with me walks away with some valid direction for their piece, and the rest of the students in the class do too since they could answer the questions in their heads while we modeled.

Turning Ideas Into A Useful Mess

After students have ideas, I show them my messy drafting process. I have a notebook I carry with me to jot down or draft in, and I encourage my students to use a separate notebook for their writing as well. Ralph Fletcher supports this practice in his book, What A Writer Needs. He stresses the importance of having a space that is just for you to put your words. A place where you can be messy and creative.  I cannot stress the word “messy” enough here. I usually put it under the document camera and show students page after page of notes, scribbles, doodles, and other markings. They can see when I get an idea and go with it because there will be a few pages of solid writing. Then things turn into bullet points and maybe there are arrows referring back to things in my stretch of rambles. I show students how it’s ok to jump from idea to idea. A “rough draft” does not have to look like a pencil-version of a finished essay. Then we write for a while about the ideas we generated in the session before.

Many times I will stop the writing process to throw my notebook on the document camera again and model while doing too. I’ll think out loud while I write and scribble notes. I pause a lot and share what my  head is saying, this is terrible. Why are you showing your students this? You are never going to come up with anything great while everyone is looking at you.  But I keep going. I push through and write something in front of them.

 

Picture of the author's writing notebook

Modeling My Mess

Of course, I have things prepared ahead of time as well–my own writing, and the published writing of others, to use as mentor texts. I pull out drafts for them to critique and sentences for them to restructure for me. I show them stages from brainstorm through to published piece. Natalie Goldberg uses this technique in her book Writing Down the Bones. Not only does she address the inner critic, but she points out the importance of listening and rolling the words around in your brain. She also shares some of her own “first drafts” and how they later turned out.

Anne Lamott also, probably more humorously, speaks to the inner critic and the “shitty first drafts” that we all write in her book, Bird by Bird. Even Stephen King comments on the need to have someone to talk to about your writing–in his case, his wife–in his writing memoir, On Writing.

I am not the first to use the idea of listening to and then blocking out the voices that tell me I am a terrible writer. I share these with my students as well because if they don’t want to believe me, at least they might believe people who make money writing! Had these authors not pushed past the procrastination and negative self-talk, they would not be where they are today.

It takes a certain level of vulnerability to go in front of teenagers year after year with not just my writing, but with my insecurities with my writing. And trust me, I still have plenty of insecurities with writing, but I find that by sharing my raw self and writing with my students, I open a door for them to be vulnerable and authentic in their sharing and writing as well.

 

Katie Sluiter is an 8th grade English teacher at Wyoming Junior High School in Wyoming, Michigan. She has been teaching English and Spanish to grades 8-12 for thirteen years. Her writing has been published on BlogHer, BonBon Break, The Mid, The Nerdy Book Club, and The Washington Post, as well as in the Language Arts Journal of Michigan. She is a contributor to The Educator’s Room and blogs at Sluiter Nation. She holds a Master’s Degree in English with an emphasis on teaching from Western Michigan University.

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5 thoughts on “Embracing vulnerability: Talking honestly about the writing process

  1. I used to think that just because I didn’t love every minute of being pregnant (although in retrospect it’s all nice and rosy) and the mundaneness of being a SAHM, it meant that I wasn’t a good mom. I used to think that because I procrastinated my writing that I wasn’t a good writer. But I finally figured out that – like you said – it’s part of the process.

  2. Yes, modeling the mess can be very helpful for many students, but let us remember that everyone’s different, so I try to give students multiple ways to approach a draft and a reporteoire of ways to get a draft written. For example, I always show students how to use visual approaches such as drawing or sketching ideas, searching for pictures related to their subject that will spark ideas, locating a video on You Tube, or a website, etc. I also demonstrate an oral approach by modeling with a student how one can talk out a subject with a friend or parent, asking questions, especially, “If you were reading an essay about ——-, what would you want to know?” And “What do you think I should say in my essay, and what point should I stress?” Talk is generative and stimulates thinking and someone else’s viewpoint can often give us direction or motivation. Some students will respond better if they read about their subject, so it’s useful to have some suggested sources students can access. Some students will even respond to concentrated thinking about a subject that produces a structured outline. And, of course, students should should be introduced to all the various invention techniques such as free writing, listing, reporter’s formula, clustering, etc., and encouraged to employ them at any stage of drafting if they become stumped or blocked. When students have multiple tools, they can usually find one that will work best for them with a particular subject.

  3. Pingback: 38 before 38 - Sluiter Nation

  4. Pingback: Popcorn and Peter Elbow: Ways to Help Your Kids with Their Writing | Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

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