What are you working on? Discussion in the Writing Classroom

In the writing classrooms where I teach, we often sit in a circle and do a “quick share” to begin class where everyone offers a brief comment. Examples of what students might say include a golden line from a reading, a question for our fellow writers, or an observation about a project in progress they are working on. Beginning in this way helps me to avoid talking too much to start off the class, and I hope to encourage students who might otherwise just sit back and relax to try and engage actively with the activity of the course.

William Torgerson teaching writing research composition discussion college

the challenge of conversation


Even trying for rapid-fire sharing around the room, with up to twenty-five students, writers can get bored, feel left out, or be uncomfortable enough talking in front of a group that they don’t speak in a way that the students in the class can hear them.  Even if a student speaks two minutes out of fifty, that’s not much engagement or opportunity to be heard. In considering this problem, I’m taken back to my days as a basketball coach. I was always looking for ways to maximize our practice time and the opportunities each player had to improve. For example, if I were to put fifteen players in a line and have them shoot, get their own rebound, and then pass to the next player, then each player might get three shots in ten minutes.  This isn’t helping anyone very much and to my way of thinking, not so different than a student in a writing class who only gets to be heard once or twice. So what to do?

As a teacher, I often go back to my time as an athlete and then a coach. For me, developing as a writer has a lot in common with my development as a shooter of the basketball or training for a long run.  When I coached and wanted to get my players more practice, I arranged shooters into five lines of three, and all of the sudden each player got five times the amount of practice than if they were in one big-long line. The classroom version of this basketball solution would be to make use of small groups. Theoretically, a student in a small group has more opportunity to join a conversation about their reading and writing. However, I’ve been in small groups as a student and now as a faculty member, and I’m often not impressed with the sort of work that gets done. There’s often a lot of noise, but it doesn’t often seem to be the noise of conversation about reading and writing. If you want students (or faculty) to work in small groups, then there has to be a plan for how this conversation can flourish.  As someone who was beginning to get more and more interested in Twitter, I wondered about the possibility of using it to enhance classroom conversation.  More on that experiment in coming posts, and if you’ve got your own ideas about classroom discussion or the use of small groups, I’d love to hear them!

“I might be a dork, but I’m a resourceful dork.” –from Junot Diaz’s “Wildwood”

One of my favorite "dorks." Possibly I didn't look so different as a youngster.

Here’s a strategy for writers or anyone who talks:  communicate in memorable phrases.   As sensible and obvious of a strategy as this might seem, it wasn’t something that occurred to me until the past year or two, that I ought to look for chances to write what some people might call a “golden line,” that I ought to try and make some sort of observation about what it is to live a life.

I don’t set out to write these golden lines.  When I write, I mostly try to put the subject ahead of an action verb and then I pack in as many images as I can.  By images, I mean something that might snag one of the senses the way a fishhook could pierce a nostril.   If it’s a short story, I’ve got myself a few characters (usually more than I should have allowed in), a situation, and I try to get to know the characters as I watch what they do and say.  What I’ve been noticing is that if I stay open to moments for memorable observation, once in awhile I can see where one might fit in.   In Diaz’s “Wildwood,” here are a few lines I won’t soon forget:

  • That’s white people for you.  They lose a cat and it’s an all-points bulletin, but we Dominicans lose a daughter and we might not even cancel our appointment at the salon (372).
  • Happiness, when it comes, is stronger than all the jerk girls in Santo Domingo combined (379).

That I think of any text I encounter as a sort of teacher of writing is the result of my being in Dr. Allen Gee’s fiction workshop at Georgia College and State University.  He didn’t talk to me specifically about how books can be my teachers, but what he did do was direct us to texts and then ask us questions designed to get us to see what was on the page.   I spot several interesting lessons from the text-as-teacher, Diaz’s “Wildwood.”  For example (what follows is me attempting to write a short and memorable line):  If Junot Diaz’s story “Wildwood” is an English language Salad, then he’s doused it with a pretty massive helping of Spanish language dressing.” This isn’t at the present moment much of a lesson for me because I don’t speak any other languages.  It is, however, a lesson for my teacher self.  Why don’t my students (who often speak several languages) ever write sentences that make use of that part of their literacy identity?  It’s a feature of their writing that I’m more responsible for than them.  I think it’s my place to show them this sort of sentence is possible:  “Sick or not, dying or not, my mother wasn’t going to go down easy.  She wasn’t una pendeja.  I’d seen her slap grown men, push white police officers onto their asses, curse a whole group of bochincheras”  (367).

Wildwood, NJ

Junot Diaz is a simile super hero:

  • It went up in a flash, like gasoline, like a stupid hope… (367).
  • …the bruja feeling that comes singing out of my bones, that takes hold of me the way blood seizes cotton (377).

A tricky or problematic area of writing is figuring out who you are on the page, or who you are on the page in a certain piece of writing.  In the pages of “Wildwood,” I’m able to revisit some important lessons.  First off, I notice the allusions in the story, most of them references to pop culture.  It used to be when I wrote that it would occur to me to try and explain something by invoking a sports, musical, or cinematic metaphor, AND I’d shut that impulse down.   I’d flip my mental rolodex away from The Cutting Crew or Fletch, and head over into at least something as literary as Edgar Allen Poe or Edith Wharton.  Here’s a couple lines from “Wildwood” that remind me there’s no reason to stay in the imaginary literary canon:

  • “A punk chick.  That’s what I became.  A Siouxsie and the Banshees–loving punk chick” (362).
  • Right after invoking The Sound of Music, Diaz writes, “All my favorite books from that period were about runaways–Watership Down, The Incredible Journey, My Side of the Mountain–and when Bon Jovi’s “Runaway” came out I imagined it was me they were singing about” (365).

Diaz alludes to Bon Jovi and Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead

If you teach English or you’ve been taught English, or you’ve had an editor recently, I wonder how many times you’ve told somebody or been told by somebody that you must be consistent with point of view or verb tense.   I know “watch verb tense” or “inconsistent POV” is something I wrote on students’ papers back in the day when I was teaching writing without being a writer myself.   Often when tense or point of view is brought up, it is a relevant point of consideration, but there’s no Moses rule that states a writer can’t change verb tense of point of view.  Diaz’s story is a good example of what’s possible.  He beings his story by addressing the reader directly, using “you,” which to my way of thinking, makes the POV second person:  “…but then she called you again, louder, her I’m-not-fucking-around voice, and you mumbled irritably, Si senora” (360).  Before we get to the switch to first person, Diaz shows us how to make a narrative leap in time, a move that allows us to skip everything that is boring and irrelevant:  “Before the winter is out the doctors remove that breast you were kneading and its partner, along with the auxiliary lymph nodes”  (362).   We’re still in second person “you,” and as a writer, you only need the little phrase “Before the winter was out” to take the reader with you to what’s next.  There’s  no need to talk about the rest of the winter, all those days when all that was happening was that people were sitting around and watching television.  Then Diaz make the switch to first person:  “A punk chick.  That’s what I became.”  The story continues.  I know what’s going on.  I can’t stop reading.  I don’t close the book thrown off by a shift in pronoun use.

The Pen / O. Henry Prize Stories 2009

There’s a bunch in this story to see, but I’ll just share one last little lesson this story offers, a super easy one to at least consider:  when you start a piece of writing in a certain place, (mental, intellectual, geographical)  sometimes the best way to end it to return to that place.  Diaz begins, “It’s never the changes we want that change everything” (361).   Fifteen or so pages later, after the narrator’s mother has been diagnosed with cancer, after the narrator has run away, returned, and then been sort of shipped off to live with her grandmother, she tells us, “So much has changed these last months, in my head, my heart.”  Nothing has happened to the narrator that she ever would have wished for, but yet, she is different than she was.  If you’re lost for an ending, come back to your starting place.  What new is there to say?

Diaz, Junot. “Wildwood.” The Pen / O. Henry Prize Stories. Ed . Laura Furman. New York: Anchor Publishing, 2009. Print.