What I Know for Sure – Oprah

As I move into my third week teaching an advanced writing class to juniors and seniors on my campus, most of whom have recently finished a degree at a community college and are now transferring into the four-year system, I’ve found myself reflecting more on my teaching of writing. At the beginning of every semester, I ask my students to reflect back on their educational experience with writing classes, and as I read about their experiences, I always think about my own teaching and writing too. As Karen wrote in an earlier blog post, I want my students to see themselves as writers, and because of that, I want to approach them as a fellow writer. I take this approach of a fellow writer with my students because every year, I’m shocked at how many believe that they cannot write and that they are just bad writers, and this startling realization always hurts my heart. This semester, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering how our students get to this belief.

And then I started to think about Oprah. In every issue of her magazine, Oprah writes a final column called “What I Know For Sure.” And as much as I could spend this entire article talking about Oprah, who I’ve watched from a very early age, I only want to say one thing about Oprah – she inspires people to improve themselves and to improve their lives. That’s why her fans talk about her like she literally comes into their homes every day, or at least she did until her little Chicago show got cancelled; she gets her message across to her audience in ways that we can all learn a lot from. Now, I’m not saying I’m the Oprah of writing teachers, but I think we can learn a lot from her. And so I decided that I need to articulate my “What I Know for Sure” about writing and share it with my students, so here’s what I plan on letting my students know from my experience as a writing teacher and as a writer.

  1. Writing well is always hard work. It’s difficult to articulate our thoughts and ideas in such a way that other people will know, will understand, and will be interested in what we write. And writing tasks change, have different styles, formats, audiences, and purposes; and so just because we write one thing well (like a personal narrative), sometimes it can be difficult to move those skills over into other kinds of writing (like a research paper). And writing always involves transitions.
  2. There is no such thing as bad writers, only writers who give up or become apathetic and discouraged. Because if you don’t lose that momentum as a writer, and you keep revising and working on that piece of writing, you can turn coal into diamonds. Sometimes, you have to sit on it awhile and sometimes you have to be under a lot of pressure, but diamonds can be made from little black lumps.
  3. Everybody needs their Dr. Phil as a writer, and sometimes we need a Dr. Oz too. We need someone to come on our show and give us that tough love like only Dr. Phil can do. And sometimes, we need a Dr. Oz to explain to us the mechanics and workings of how our writing is digested by readers. Writing just does not occur in a vacuum and we need people who care about us enough to gently explain things to us and to motivate us to do better in our work. This is why I’ve always had a passion for writing center work because consultants there are really just interested readers.
  4. Revision is where real writing occurs. As Anne Lamott explains in Bird by Bird, most of us have “shitty first drafts” that we’d be embarrassed by. And countless writing scholars also explain that good writers revise. Journey and Glee had it right, “Don’t stop believing.”
  5. Writing is a process, but as Ellen Shelton pointed out in her earlier blog, it’s not one process that works well every time for every person on every project. Writing is messy and it doesn’t always begin with writing. I always say that my writing needs time to percolate, and my coffee-maker brain is a slow one sometimes. It’s funny that doing the dishes or driving can be a legitimate part of a writing process, but it is. And so is a phone call to my mom, who often just listens to me talk through what I want to write about.
  6. Sometimes, I need my Gail (or in my case, my Gilly). My Gail brings me back down from moments of panic, tells me to get started and getting going. I’d call her a cheerleader, but she’s much more than that. She’s my road trip buddy; when I drive down that highway of writing something big or difficult, she talks to me, keeps me awake, and keeps me going. At the end, I just wish we could give away the free car we drove to get there.
  7. Writing should be fun and exciting! I struggled over how to write this for awhile, and then I finally decided that I was going to do what I tell my students to, to pick something I am really interested in and something fun and just go with it. One of the best argument papers I’ve read from an undergraduate was about which is better, French fries or tater tots.
  8. And, finally, this teacher will always read your work with excitement and enthusiasm, waiting to see just how far you can go in your journey as a writer, and hoping to help get you there along the way. Because writing well may be tough, but it is always worth the effort.

So, in the end, maybe I’m not willing to start my own network or even to offer a life class; and this list is by no means exhaustive. But many years of being a student and a teacher has taught me a thing or two that I can pass along to my students, and the thing I really love about teaching is that I can always learn more and do better!

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