Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

How Can English Teachers Nurture Young Writers?

Lately, I've been talking about Stephen King while teaching Edgar Allan Poe. When King was in middle school, he wrote a "novel version" of Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum," based on the horror-movie adaptation. When his teacher, Miss Hisler, caught him selling mimeographed copies, she asked him why he was writing such "junk."

As King recounts in On Writing, the feeling of shame stuck with him for years. "I kept hearing Miss Hisler asking why I wanted to waste my talent, why I wanted to waste my time, why I wanted to write junk."

As teachers, we have a great deal of influence over our young charges. I don't teach the creative writing class at my school for exactly this reason. In the publishing world, there's the adage of "learning that your baby is ugly." Your writing is never perfect. (As I write this, I have my editor's notes and the revisions I need to make to my next romance novel, Burning for You.)

Teenagers write with pure abandon and joy — most have no idea of craft or convention. Often teens' use of grammar and punctuation alone would ensure a rejection — because no poor copy editor would even know where to start. Yet there's a spark, and as teachers, we can't crush it. Just like people aren't born making a free throw, and some will have more talent at it than others (and more success), writing is a growth process.

In The Atlantic, contributing writer Jessica Lahey interviewed Stephen King about his experiences as a high school English teacher. She asked how he handled giving his students feedback. King answered, "A lot of them didn't care; they were just hacking out assignments. For those that are sensitive and insecure, you have to combine gentleness with firmness. It's a tightrope, particularly with teenagers. Did I have students actually bust out crying? I did. I'd say, 'This is just a step to get you to the next step.'"

I've watched the lips quiver after some student brought me something. No one wants to hear their pride and joy has flaws. Teenagers, especially, can't yet see that their writing has issues. Often I tell mine to read it aloud so that they hear the mistakes. I also insist that they don't write it the night before it's due — allowing, instead, for it to sit for 24 hours before they read it for revision. This also seems to help.

But King got me thinking, so I posted two questions on the list serve of Novelists, Inc., a professional writers' organization. The first question I asked: What advice do you wish your English teacher would have given you?"

Some of the responses I received follow.

Gaelen Foley, best-selling historical romance author of The Secrets of a Scoundrel, sent me this: "Every great writer who ever lived was a rebel at heart. I wish my English teacher would have realized that the inconvenient, cheeky kids who can't/won't follow the rules are probably the most creative and best suited temperamentally for the wild ride of a career in the arts/entertainment, and that class clowns are born entertainers."

Dark fantasy author of This Crumbling Pageant, Patricia Burroughs also wishes her creativity had been nurtured. She replied, "I wish any of my English teachers had seen my creative impulses and encouraged them. The only time I ever felt such encouragement was through happenstance."

Deborah Gordon told me her high school English classes were such a misery she avoided all English courses in college. She says, "What I was never told but wish I had been was to give a book 50 or 100 pages. If you are yawning with boredom at that point, it is okay to abandon it, even if critics say it's brilliant."

Author Ann Lafarge answered as a once-upon-a-time English teacher, as a book editor and a student, telling me, "Read widely, read well and keep alive the flame of fine fiction."

Jennifer Stevenson, author of It's Raining Men, wishes she'd been told to "Write the way you talk, and never mind about imitating 'great writers.' I was a child of a highly literary family that included two newspaper editors. I already 'talked like a book.' That wasn't gonna to sell my books; what sold 'em was writing the way I talked."

Breaking the rules seemed to be a theme, as novelist Kit Frazier wished her English teacher would have told her "That it's okay to break the rules, as long as you know the rule and why you're breaking it, and that it's okay to make up words, so long as you spell them consistently."

New York Times best-selling contemporary and historical author Patricia Rice also had a bit of an issue with the rules. She replied, "I wish she'd taught us that creative writing does not require echoing the first sentence of the paragraph in the final sentence. Repetition didn't add much to essays either!"

Author Judy Gill, who published her first novel before age 30, believes that writers must follow their own paths and creativity shouldn't be stifled. She said, "The advice I she had given me and did not was: Don't waste time listening to those who say 'That's no way to make your mark in life.'"

Personally, I had English teachers who allowed me to write, so I don't have anything I wish they would have taught me. My journalism teacher didn't pick me for associate editor — a crushing blow at the time — but later, when I was a journalism teacher myself, he became my mentor and good friend. Life works in funny ways.

In my next column, I'm going to share the answer to the second question I asked: What was the most important thing you learned in your English class that had a lasting impact?

Stay tuned.

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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

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Comments from our users:

Friday March 6th 2015, 1:14 PM
Comment by: David D.
This is a great direction, Ms Dunaway. I would add that it is good for teenagers to know that accomplished writers have these questions and struggle a bit to offer answers. What spurs motivation? What would have helped me? What inspired some admired writer?

The other advice about the student's writing efforts is very good stuff too.
Friday March 6th 2015, 3:45 PM
Comment by: Joseph P.
Maybe if writing skills were nurtured across the curriculum--and recognized by teachers of other subjects (as well as their English teachers) students would experience how their talents transfer across disciplines and then beyond the schoolhouse walls - where the real writers are made. (I say this as someone who owes my own interest in writing to my high school English teachers!)

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