The Writer's Jungle: Introduction

There is no royal path to good writing; and such paths as exist do not lead through neat critical gardens, various as they are, but through the jungles of self, the world, and of craft.
-Jessamyn West

I never set out to write a writing curriculum. This whole shebang started when a friend conned me into teaching a Sunday school class for homeschooling moms desperate for help in writing. I hesitated. Just because I worked in the field of writing and editing (wrote articles, worked as an editor, helped struggling D Min students with their dissertations and had ghost written a few books) didn’t mean I knew the first thing about the educational philosophy of teaching kids to write.

My kids were writing, but I had never used anyone’s writing manuals. I just taught them the way I’d learned to do my jobs. For one of them, my style of teaching worked great. For the older one, I found myself inventing new ideas on the fly-regularly-to keep his pen wet and his pages full of words. He thought writing itself a cranky and irritating process.

So I showed up for that first class of fifteen and within an hour discovered something that rocked me back on my heels. The principles I taught were brand new to the moms in the room. I wasn’t repeating information from their various and sundry manuals. None of them had heard many of the ideas I suggested. In fact, it’s become common since that day for mothers to tell me that what I teach has transformed how they themselves write.

Whenever I start a class, I like to find out what the trouble is. Mothers eagerly tell me their writing woes. I include some of their comments here. See if any of these moms speaks for you.

“The hardest thing about teaching my kids to write is that they hate it. I know they don’t have to like all aspects of school, but they hate this one like nothing else. It’s hard to teach because they dread it so. I don’t feel confident about it either so I also dread it somewhat. I never know what to have them write, what their level should be, how to grade it… so many variables.”

“One of the greatest struggles I’ve encountered in teaching writing to Kristen is her lack of cooperation. She responds negatively to any writing assignment I give her. I have tried several curriculums, Easywriting, Writing Strands, Wordsmith, EZ-Writer. No matter what I tried, she was disinterested and all I could get out of her would be short, brief sentences and paragraphs. Outside of a school assignment, she would spend hours writing plays and stories on the computer using Storybook Weaver and American Girl Premiere.”

“My greatest struggle in teaching writing is the discipline of actually doing it. I lack confidence and motivation to plow through yet another book on teaching or inspiring the child to write readable, enjoyable, grammatically correct, informative, intelligent writing material. I know it can be done, but how to do it? I’m a little embarrassed at how slow we are in our writing skills.”

I could go on for pages with comments similar to these by real mothers. What is it about writing that is so challenging? Why can’t kids learn to write the way they learned to speak� naturally, over time, with little obvious effort and lots of satisfying success at the end of it? I had to figure out why these writing programs weren’t working.

So I read some of those other courses homeschooling moms use. Immediately, I saw the big divide between what I’ve learned from professional writers and what the educational world teaches about writing. Educators approach writing as a school subject. They dissect writing products and then work backward to create exercises that are supposed to help kids reproduce that kind of writing. Ironically, this approach to writing virtually snuffs out the creative impulse and the personal statement so critical to quality writing. Many a student has been awarded an “A” for bad writing (that is stiff, lifeless, contrived writing) simply by fulfilling the right requirements for the exercise.

Then it hit me: I don’t take piano from a piano maker. Why would I learn writing from an educator? When I want to learn more about writing, I don’t turn to educators. I consult books written by professionals who get paid for their writing. They focus on a different list of essentials: a writer’s voice, the power of personal experience, telling the true truth, becoming an observant person, playing with language, finding a unique angle for the topic� Professional writers want the product not to merely match a list of expectations but to be a compelling read.

Don’t get me wrong. Educators aren’t bad people or even wrong about all they teach. There are many teachers who’ve caught on to the essence of writing as practiced by authors. And I’ve learned about writing from some of those wonderful teachers. However, something was missing in most of those educator-generated manuals I read: the connection between the original, spontaneous, genuine, inspired thinking of unique human beings (our kids) and the “how to’s” of writing. When teachers focus on writing forms, writing is stripped of its guts and organic power. The results? Blank paper, or stiff, lifeless words that fit into writing-form straight jackets. Blech.

Writing is an art that draws on the powers of thinking, imagination, craft and passion. Think about getting all of those competing forces in your mind to work together and you have a recipe for both inadequacy and paralysis, or wonder and inspiration.

The challenge is to teach this complex tangle of creativity and craft to your kids with the “blank stare” syndrome� but, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The best-kept secret in homeschooling families is how little writing instruction ever happens. You wouldn’t know it by the numbers of writing manuals and courses on their already sagging bookshelves. You wouldn’t know it by the number of websites and workshops devoted to writing instruction.

When I meet mothers in my classes, they sidle up to me in trench coats and big hairy mustaches. They whisper behind their cocked fedoras, “Psst. Don’t tell anyone. I don’t teach writing. I’ve given up.” No matter how many books you have about writing there’s a chapter missing in every one of them: How to get a kid to move his pencil across a page. Everything rests on this foundation and no one addresses it.

Here are six well-known writing principles. Read through them to see if you’ve ever encountered these:

  1. In order to write well, kids need to master the mechanics first.
  2. Writers write every day.
  3. Creative writing assignments that have imaginative topics elicit the best writing.
  4. Writing is taught by starting with the word, then the sentence, then the paragraph, and then the report followed by the essay, and so on.
  5. Know your audience before you start.
  6. Kids who dislike writing need to write more in order to become comfortable with it.

These sound like good principles. So why don’t they work? Why do kids hate writing and mothers hate teaching it? Why is writing curricula the most popular topic at homeschooling conventions? Because the educational approach to writing is built on myths. All six of the principles I shared above are just that: myths.

Instead of looking to teachers, let’s ask the pros for help. They offer it in ways that school don’t.

At my house…

I have five kids. Three of them are old enough to write. But I’d be less than honest if I led you to believe that we haven’t struggled, too. One of my home-educated angels came up with these really new complaints about writing: “Why do I have to write about that?” “Can’t I just write three lines?” “I can’t think of anything to say, Mom. I mean it.” And my favorite “My hand is cramping up. My stomach kills. And I have a huge headache. Can’t you just write it for me?”

My daughter, who loves to write, made me cringe when I actually tried to decode her spelling and punctuation.

Between the two of them, they used insipid words like “nice” and “good” when describing President Lincoln; they wrote run-on sentences and made d’s that looked like b’s. They drew tiny pictures of skateboards, suns and doodles along the edges of empty sheets of paper and worst of all, one of them threatened to throw up if made to write even one more sentence.

I had to find out what was corking their otherwise prolific commentary on life and the things they learn. Certainly my kids have no trouble communicating what they care about while I’m talking to a friend on the phone. Hel-loooo! Suddenly the floodgates of self-expression are completely unleashed. Words and sentences galore.

Simply put, however, they wouldn’t allow their energetic minds to be controlled by a hand, a pen and a piece of paper. (And a mother!)

So what’s a mom to do? In my case, I examined my writing process. I pulled out my books that teach writers how to write. And I got on with teaching my kids to write the way I wanted to learn. We still have our days when they don’t respond to my assignments with sunny dispositions, but when I take the time to teach them to write the way I want to learn, we have satisfying writing experiences that leave me fulfilled as a mom, home educator and writer. I want that for you too. And I want it for our kids.

It’s a jungle in there

This course is for you, the homeschooling mother. Instead of sending you down the Congo River alone to figure out how to hack your way through the Writer’s Jungle, let me be your guide. My hope is that in these pages you’ll find some new routes to the land of Alive Writing. We’ll go together. Sometimes the trails are clearly marked and you’ll make lots of progress with your kids. Other times, a machete is about all that will get you through the tangled spots. But instead of telling you to “go to the other side,” this course is about walking there with you hand-in-hand.

The Writer’s Jungle will teach you something about the nature of the Writer’s Jungle-where the swamps are, how to perform rescue operations for kids who are knee deep in the quick sand of resistance, what the academic writing trails look like and how to travel through them. It will offer you an “X” marks-the-spot kind of reference so you’ll know when you’ve arrived at the desired destination: a kid who writes freely and well for his age.

Jungles are unfriendly places. But they’re also beautiful, and wild, and exhilarating. Maps are of little value to the gringo who visits them. Visitors need guides, not maps. Guides know how to get along in the jungle, not just how to get through it.

The Writer’s Jungle is also a wild place. But I promise you: it’s alive and beautiful, too. It’s the landscape of your child’s mind and heart. Our job is to stop and notice the sights along the way; to uncover the tiny iris lost under the pile of bad punctuation.

It’s my hope that you’ll come to love your young writer and his particular jungle in a whole new way. By traveling together, I want to point out the irises you’ve been missing. There’s a world of insight, creativity and passion in your children that writing is meant to capture. By taking some new trails, I hope to lead you to that secret place.

Pull on your boots. Let’s go. I’ve got a compass in hand. And you don’t have to travel alone.

Return to The Writer’s Jungle page for a complete description.