Monday, October 28, 2013

Stuff My Writing Students Say, Part 15

"I'm just not that into this assignment."

I give out an assignment in a nonfiction writing class. It typically has well-defined parameters, an assignment specifically designed to flex a new or developing writing muscle, with a word count that makes sense for the time that will elapse between assignment and due date. An assignment that will subtly force the writers to edge just outside their writing comfort zone, or to engage with a sticky craft concept we've been covering, or to introduce a new way of working with prose or approaching a familiar form in a new way (a personal essay in second person).

It's not that I want to inhibit a student writer's imagination, limit their subjects, or promote a particular aesthetic. Rather, I want them to stretch, to try something new or something hard or sometimes just something else. And yes, I have a reason, which might not always be apparent at the moment.

Mind you, it's almost never an assignment that would stretch over more than one-third of the class sessions, and usually it's simply a one-week project. And – and this is important – I'm talking here about organized, instructional-based classes in writing development; not workshop-style sessions where the underlying assumption is that you write what you like any way you like it, for any reason you may have. Here we are talking about a class which built on the assumption that assignments will be made, that such assignments will help develop and polish writing skills.

So, the assignment is made, and inevitably, someone complains/explains, "I'm just not really interested in that assignment.  Maybe I can do something else instead."

Reasons?  Oh, plenty:  I've never liked doing X.  I'm short on time and Y will be easier. I'm just really into Y right now.  I can't see how doing/writing X will help me.  I'm trying to write a book, and there won't be anything like X in it. I'm on a roll in my other writing and don't want to distract myself with X.  It seems like busywork. How can this possibly help my writing?

To which I reply: I understand, I get it, I've been there. 

But that's the assignment. Try it. See what happens.

My reasons: You may learn something. You may surprise yourself. You may like it. You may not like it. You may figure something out about yourself as a writer. You may have fun. You may be miserable, but still find a way to complete the assignment – and pass another milestone on the way to being a grown-up writer.

You may find, as I did many times when I completed assignments I initially groaned about, that sometimes the best response is no response. The best response to an assignment in an instructional-based class is simply to do it. Write it.

You may find (maybe not right away, but eventually), as I did on several occasions, a door or a window or a crack you've never once thought of seeking out on your own. You may find that through that door or window or crack is the small beckoning stream of light that opens you up to something new and wonderful, on the page, in your writer's mind.

Try it. See what happens.*

You can read the first 14 installments of Stuff My Students Say here.

* I use this simple two-sentence bit of advice all the time, something I cribbed from a writer I admire enormously, Leslea Newman.

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