publishing

The Writer, the teacher, the student, and the trunk

One of the most important things ever said about teaching English from one of the most important Connected Educators out there is this:

“It’s no great secret that most English teachers aren’t published writers.”

It’s a sentiment that’s important.  In fact, it’s so important that I think it should be its own graphic, complete with a background and different fonts.

Background image by Nic McPhee.  Used under cc license.

Background image by Nic McPhee. Used under cc license.

There.  That’s better.

I am sure that there is some truth to this–after all, there are probably more high school English teachers in the United States these days than there are published writers (I guess … it’s no great secret that I’m not doing research on statistics here), but does the truthiness of the quote in that graphic provide any insight other than the speaker wants to look down upon those who are “just teachers?”

I honestly don’t think so.  Although if you hold this truth to be self-evident and ask why most English teachers aren’t published writers, you’ll find a number of English teachers who, while they don’t have Random House beating down their doors, may have something written somewhere.  I have a handful of articles and a self-published novel of questionable quality (which doesn’t really count, right?) and I also have three trunk novels.  I know a couple of colleagues–past and present–who have similar writings and when the topic has come up, the biggest reason for not having more “out there” as you would put it is simply that, well, aside from commitments to family, grading 100-120 papers on a regular basis can get in the way of writing.  But I also know colleagues who don’t feel the need to go out and write novels and who are simply great at teaching English (but I think that would make them “inauthentic” or something).

Now, the question I want to raise is considering that there are English teachers out there who have writings the world will never see, is it okay to reveal this to students?  Furthermore, is it okay for us to tell students about how a significant amount of writing actually never sees the light of day?

Our current culture of education, especially the cult of the Connected Educator, would answer that with a resounding “NO!” because there is an obsession, it seems, with publishing because of publishing’s “authenticity.”  Furthermore, to tell a burgeoning writer that he or she may write quite a bit that never gets published and read isn’t exactly encouraging.  If you have written something, put it out there.  Put it out there, put it out there, put it out there, put it out there.  No matter the quality.  Because if you don’t, then you’re obviously not doing things right.

But I come from a place where if something is to be published, it has be ready to be published and if you want to really write you have to understand that it’s often work and it often takes more time than you think it does.  It takes a lot of self-awareness, self-critique, and the ability to take both criticism and rejection from others.  It’s kind of like trying to get a date.

Anyway, I’m not exactly going to dole out advice that says tell little kids that their writing needs work and that they can’t show off what they did because it isn’t “publish-worthy,” but as they reach middle and high school, I can’t see how simply putting out product that’s “done” and then offering up praise because of the simple completion of a task is acceptable.  Being told “you’re great” as a teenager never prepared me for the point where I was around better writers, nor did it prepare me for the tough criticism I received of my own writing.  While I had excellent grades coming out of high school, I didn’t have the best self-esteem and learning that my writing wasn’t as great as I thought it was caused me to be extremely self-conscious about it, which is something I occasionally struggle with to this day.

That’s not to say that I am the product of a terrible education; in fact, I’ve always been incredibly grateful for the education I received.  But in being a teacher myself, I want to create an environment where that doesn’t feed the beast of entitlement.  I certainly point out what is good, or even great, about my students’ writing; however, I also tear it apart the same way I bloody page after page of my own writing.  Not every student will respond positively to this, although not every student will go on to aspire to be a writer.  In that case, I work with them on how to become solid enough in their writing so they won’t cringe every time they’re asked to do a writing assignment.  Writing, after all, is work.  But it’s work worth doing.

As for me, I have no idea if my trunk novels will ever see the light of day.  There’s too much of me Mary Sue-ing myself into them and one was so impossible to revise that I abandoned it halfway through the second draft.  It doesn’t suck entirely, but bits and pieces of it that I love are not enough to make a whole novel.  What I do with it now, though, is tell my students about it and use it as an example of how with writing, you take the good and you take the bad (take ’em both and there you have …) and those perceived failures are important lessons in developing your craft.

Then again, what do I know, right?