What teaching writing taught me about my own work

When I was younger, I used to weave fantasies about what it might be like to be a writer when I grew up. I read voraciously at the time, with no discerning taste. My writing was similarly haphazard. I drew from the styles of authors I fell in love with. First Tamora Pierce and J.D. Salinger in elementary and middle school, then a brief infatuation with a variety of British notables—Bronte, Lawrence, and Joyce, and finally ending in the recursive imaginaries of Marquez, Mahfouz, Rushdie. This mish-mash of writing styles ironed out gradually in college. I learned to eliminate prepositional phrases, profess allegiance to active verbs, and follow a clear organizational logic. However, in the process of becoming a good “academic” writer, I lost what I knew about storytelling.

In the beginning of my doctoral program, I began tutoring middle and high school students in writing. Most of the students I worked with knew the basics of writing. They could form coherent paragraphs, even write essays. Yet, they struggled to move beyond general, sweeping statements. When asked to write a personal narrative or even a narrative introduction to a literary or analytic essay, they froze. They could not move beyond the literal, initial components of an essay to the craft of writing. They did not know how to tell a story.

I began to recognize these same challenges in the college students I worked with as a teaching assistant in writing-intensive courses. They knew the fundamentals of an essay. They could arrange their thoughts somewhat coherently on the page. But, again, they stumbled when asked to illustrate or “show” their argument.

For a year or so, I puzzled over this seemingly impassable gap. While lessons in organization were eagerly implemented and thesis statements grew stronger, my students continued to struggle interweaving narrative and analytic writing. Gradually, I realized that the issue lay not in my students, but in my own writing and how I was teaching them. As a graduate student, I had trained myself to write succinctly. I loved the last step of editing, when I would ruthlessly cut out excess words, adverbs, and unnecessary adjectives. Yet, in the process, my writing had become sterile. While storytelling can be accompanied with sparse language, by straightening my writing, I had also lost my script.

In recognizing my own struggles in my students, my teaching and my writing improved. Tutoring, which had begun merely as a side-gig to offset all the necessities of life not covered by a graduate stipend, became a crucial element of my work. By teaching younger students how tell stories through their writing, I was able to find my own narrative voice.  

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