Each September dozens of first-year college students flock to the small college writing center where I work, desperate to capitalize on our free tutoring services. Despite a staff of 40 and 12 business hours per day, we can’t keep up with the demand. And while we tutors relish the opportunity to speak with so many new students about writing, a craft that our staff is deeply engaged with and always excited about, the students rarely seem as happy to see us as we are to see them.
This past fall, a student made an appointment with me to brainstorm ideas for an assignment for her Introduction to Literary Studies course. In three pages, her assignment dictated, she was supposed to explicate a poem or short story, paying specific attention to metaphors and themes. She had her story picked out, and knew which themes she wanted to analyze. She understood metaphors and how they were at work in the story. In conversation with me, her analysis was sharp and well articulated. Fifteen minutes into our session, I asked her what I could help her with—she seemed so prepared to write. Quite candidly, she told me she was scared.
Scared of what?
Scared of writing. Despite her clear grasp on the material, the thought of condensing her ideas into a written analysis caused her great anxiety. “I’m just not a good writer,” she said, “I’ve never liked it. I just can’t do it.”
We hear stories like this all the time at our writing center: a brilliant young student with complex and enlightening ideas for an essay is absolutely terrified of putting pen to paper or finger to key, apprehensive about every step of the writing process.
When I first began tutoring, I was consistently taken aback by students’ reluctance to write. I was a fairly quiet child, and writing was always my outlet. Until I was 7 or so, my main hobby was interviewing neighbors and friends, asking them questions about crimes I made up and using their answers to write articles for my pretend newspaper. My parents encouraged my writing, and every few months would help me type and print my favorite stories and deliver them to my neighbors. And though as I got older I became embarrassed by their insistence that I write things for them to read, looking back now, I’m exceptionally grateful for their encouragement and persistence.
Today, I think of writing as just another way of expressing myself, like dancing or singing or making art. Sometimes I write for fun or therapy, sometimes I write for work, sometimes I write for a grade in a class. And sometimes, writing makes me nervous too—if I know someone else is going to read my work, or if I’m writing about something I feel strongly about—but I’m not afraid of the process itself. I’ve never felt like I just couldn’t do it.
I think any one who grows up thinking they just can’t write has been dealt a major injustice. Sure, a comfort with writing provides an academic advantage, and for many a workplace advantage as well. But more importantly, a comfort with writing provides another means of expression in a world in which disconnecting from your own emotions and experience has become easy, if not commonplace.
And this is why I’m so glad that programs like author Dave Egger’s 826 National are working to get children engaged with writing early, when their desire to express is high and their reluctance is low. Egger’s program, which launched in San Francisco in 2002 but has since spread to eight major cities nationwide, focuses on using creative techniques to kindle children’s interest in and command of writing.
Eggers sets up writing centers under the guise of eccentric storefronts. In New York City, for example, the 826 Center is located in the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company, which sells capes, masks, grappling hooks, and secret identity kits. But the store is actually used to fund creative writing and tutoring programs for local kids. The stores’ quirky facades quickly spark children’s interest, and the writing programs expand on that interest. First, the kids might write stories about superheroes and spies, but the program builds on that initial excitement to keep them interested not just in the fun, silly themes, but in writing as a means of expressing yourself.
The center publishes its student’s work, encourages them to write in groups, to write poems or short stories, science fiction or personal essays. It encourages them to write about what interests them, so they can see that writing is not just something you have to do for school; writing is a way they can make the world come alive around them, exactly as they’d like that world to be.
Similar programs exist on a less national scale: on the west coast Take My Word for It runs thematic writing groups where children can work with their peers to write about their interests. The Flight group, for example, focuses on writing about planes, and flying, and even the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. Mighty Writers in Philadelphia and Incite to Write in New Mexico offer similarly engaging programs. And across the country smaller versions of these programs are working hard to make sure children see writing as an exciting hobby, something to be proud of, rather than another chore.
The mission of programs like these—to ignite a child’s love of writing—is even more important as public schools continue to redirect resources toward test prep and standardization. Children are naturally so creative, so willing to explore and express. We should encourage them to think of the written word as a primary means of sharing their ideas, of telling us what they see and how they see it. Writing shouldn’t terrify; it should excite and expire. And while not every child will catch the writers’ bug, every child should be given the chance.