Thursday, July 2, 2015
Seeing Past Z was based on the many years I spent teaching children in my home and at a local garden. It was about the beauty of just being together, imagining together, writing together, and not mailing our poems, songs, stories out into the world for "greater" validation. I never re-wrote the children's work, never rewrote the work of my son. What they created they created. They took the pride of ownership. They gained.
From the opening pages of Seeing Past Z:
I want to raise my son to pursue wisdom over winning. I want him to channel his passions and talents and personal politics into rivers of his own choosing. I'd like to take the chance that I feel it is my right to take on contentment over credentials, imagination over conquest, the idiosyncratic point of view over the standard-issue one. I'd like to live in a world where that's okay.
Some call this folly. Some make a point of reminding me of all the most relevant data: That the imagination has lost its standing in classrooms and families nationwide. That storytelling is for those with too much time. That winning early is one bet-hedging path toward winning later on. That there isn't time, as there once was time, for a child's inner life. That a mother who eschews competition for conversation is a mother who places her son at risk for second-class citizenry.
The book was ahead of its time. It sold but a few thousand copies, was remaindered quickly. A few years later the slow parenting movement rolled in. Books about the importance of play and the dangers of the parent-governed resume grabbed headlines. Helicopter parenting was caught in the snare. The family counselors, the social scientists, the psychiatrists sat on the talk-show couches and asked, What have we done to our young?
Yesterday The Atlantic ran an important story by Jen Karetnick titled "Behind the Scenes of Teenage Writing Competitions." The story reminds us of the damage that can get done when teens (and those who oversee their paths to glory) write to win, write to build their resumes. The work is shaped (not always by the teens themselves) to beat the odds. The resumes grow, often at the expense of less-privileged children who don't have writing mentors and editors at their side. And programs designed to help these young people step toward the light are compromised by work that may or may not be the students' own. From the story:
As parents and teachers, as writers and people with more than a few wrinkles by their eyes, let us do what is right by our young people. Let us not rewrite their stories. Let us not allow them to think that winning is more important than knowing. Let us remind them that honesty, authenticity, goodness is the ultimate aim, not stars or unearned privilege. Let them find out who they are.
This destruction of self-esteem and erasing of voice is exactly what Nora Raleigh Baskin, author of the new book Ruby on the Outside, fears. Having taught for almost 15 years at organizations including Gotham Writers Workshop, Raleigh Baskin has seen those mindsets trending. She refuses to critique manuscripts to send off to literary magazines or to judge competitions on the grounds that budding writers’ voices shouldn’t be “held up against a random opinion. This is the time for exploration and for encouragement … Writing is all about process and setting these arbitrary achievements takes away from that.”For some young writers, that pressure can be far more insidious than the pain of rejection. The competitive spirit may persuade parents to hire well-known writers to tutor, edit, or even rewrite their children’s work. It may even lead minors down the path of plagiarism.
When, for example, I asked my young people to create a character, I gave out no stars. When I served as the Master Writing Teacher at the National YoungArts Foundation a few years ago, I did not go to upgrade the students' work; I went to provoke them with new prompts, new readings, new conversations, to encourage them to dig deeper within their own souls. And at Penn, where I teach a single course once each year, I am not rewriting my students' work, not rewriting their essays. I am pressing them to take each idea and every line farther—for their own sake. I am rewarding hard work and careful thought. I am rewarding personal growth. I am disappointed by those who take short cuts. Because it only hurts them.
One last word on this. Lately I have been going through many boxes from my youth. Reading, with a terrible blush in my cheeks, my early poems. People, they were awful. They were worse than awful. They showed no promise.
But they were mine. Never rewritten, never edited, never smoothed out. It took time time time for me to find my own way, and I'm still struggling. Having never taken formal creative writing classes, having taught myself through the books I've read and the friends I've made, I may still be behind the curve, but I am me behind that curve.
Let the young be themselves. Their breakthroughs will have more meaning.