To Write Well, Write Truthfully

**This blog was also published by the Swenson Book Development website.

 

How do you write well? Probably thousands have written about this. On the surface, it seems writing is about language, which to a large extent it is. It seems it is about which words to use, or how to find a unique story or approach. But from my point of view, it really is about the mind and body that writes. It is about being truthful and real. If you fake it, your readers will know it. You will know it. The plot or argument won’t hold together. When it’s truthful to you, it will engage others.

 

And you don’t merely know a truth intellectually—you feel it. A word of beauty is really a path for feeling to follow, or it reveals the path feeling took to get to meaning. Without feeling, words are empty code. Dead. When a sentence feels off or incomplete or like it’s struggling for breath, it is wrong, no matter how attractive it looks. Don’t get distracted by good looks. It is the heart that counts.

 

Feelings arise before words and memories do. They arise with the first hint of awareness. You probably have experienced not knowing what you want to write until you put something down on paper, or in your computer. The act of writing opens up the conscious to the depths normally unconscious. It is creating and thinking. It is revelation.

 

So the first step in writing and creating is being aware of feeling. I do that by meditating, exercising and reading. Meditation clears my mind and increases awareness and focus. Exercise energizes me and clears away blocks and obsessions. Reading provides imagery, insights, and intellectual challenges.

 

The philosopher, psychologist, and writer Dr. Jean Huston said in a workshop I attended, that immersing yourself in poetry makes beauty readily available to you. Beauty will then percolate through the unconscious and emerge in one’s speech and writing. The same with reading stories, psychology, philosophy, history and such. Reading reveals doors which meditation unlocks.

 

One meditation is to focus attention on the tip of the nose and count breaths. This develops a focused attention which is also peripherally aware of what is going on inside you. All you have to do is count to ten. Listen to the count. The directions for meditation or mindfulness might sound simple. It is the mind which adds the complexities.

 

In school, on hard plastic chairs, we sit near the edge of the chair so we’re neither slouched nor rigid. Close your eyes partly or fully, rest your hands on your lap, and put your attention, continuously, at the tip of the nose and feel the sensations of breathing. Feel the moving air, its temperature, consistency as you breathe in—and out. Inhale. Then exhale and say “onnnnne” to yourself. Continue to be aware throughout the breath. When the exhalation completes itself, allow the in-breath to happen on its own. Then exhale with “twoooo.” Just count. Gently maintain your awareness without trying to change the rhythm of the breath. Continue in this fashion, counting the exhalations until you get to ten. Then, instead of saying eleven, go back to one. Do this sequence once more until you get to ten, and again.

 

If any feelings arise, be kind to yourself. Notice what’s there and then return to the breath. No internal commenting is necessary. The same if any thoughts arise. Just notice the arising or the whisper of thought. Then let it dissipate as you return your attention to the counting and the feel of air passing in and out. That’s how you start. Two minutes for the first time is good. Your body will ask for more if you don’t force it.

 

If, or when, you get lost, and you lose the count or awareness of the breath, just focus on the fact that you noticed you were lost. This is the prime lesson. Everyone gets lost sometimes. It is the fact that now you are found, and how you respond to it that is important. Enjoy being found.

 

The meditation develops a sense of presence that is inherently creative and curious. Understanding will come more quickly to you. If you look at your ideas or writing in this state, you will readily notice what feels off or incomplete.

 

Another wonderful practice is proprioceptive writing, created by Linda Trichter Metcalf and Tobin Simon. It is a “method for finding your authentic voice,” and hearing your personal truth. It asks you to use a pen or pencil instead of a computer because when you write with the hand, you actually shape the words and thus have a greater ability to feel and hear what you write. It is especially appropriate for the brainstorm or first draft. Put your pen to the paper and write whatever comes to you. Maybe you have a question or topic in mind you want to explore—respond to that. If you get lost or confused, write down your confusion. “Write what you hear. Hear what you write.” Don’t edit. Just let your self go free. Edit later. Write until what you hear feels real, honest, exciting, and large enough to do justice to the topic.

 

Sometimes, when you don’t know where to begin an essay or can’t figure out how to answer a question, you need to begin with the confusion. Start your brainstorm or the essay or story itself by voicing your confusion. By going directly into it, it unravels.

 

Study yourself. When are you most clear and awake? In college, my best time was late at night, when the world was quiet and my school day complete. Now, it is the morning, when I’m fully awake but still close to dreaming. The morning sun—the freshness of the light—gets to me.

 

Think of writing as a process. To prepare, you immerse yourself in a topic until you are clear on what drives you. Then you brainstorm or do proprioceptive writing, recording initial ideas without care about spelling or craft—with honesty and feeling. Then later you craft. You plot. And then you test it, share it, think about how others will hear it, and re-write it. Actually, you constantly repeat the steps of the creative process. You prepare through immersion. You propose sentences, plot lines, arguments and counterarguments and question them. You then allow yourself to be aware of frustration and feelings. Then you incubate; you step back, take a walk in the woods or meditate or sleep on it. And in the morning, or after the meditation, the answer will be there, or you will have a new perspective. The material will be integrated. Illumination will follow.

 

When you get lost or don’t know what to write, return to the source. Go quiet. Work with your mind and body, not against it. But be diligent and commit. Commit to your work and to the process of writing itself. If you focus on the result, you will force it. Instead of valuing the ends over the means—the celebration, acclaim, the satisfaction of completing a project—love the process itself. To love the process is to turn your whole life into a creative act. It is to value each moment you live.

 

What a beautiful way to live.

 

 

Teaching Writing and Discovering Who You Are

Sometimes teachers ask themselves, “How do I get students to use the full writing process, to start with brainstorming and proceed to outlining, first draft, etc.,?” I think that question assumes that the writing process, as usually taught, is the most appropriate way for each student to approach writing. Why not start with: “How do I help each student to think clearly and express that clarity?” Or: “How do I help this student to write well or to write at all?”

 

Even more, you can ask yourself: “How do you write what is your own truth?” Discovering what works best for you, and why, can help you relate to your student’s struggles. When writing is viewed as revelation or discovery, a means not only for expressing but thinking critically about your life, then writing becomes intrinsically motivating. It is not just something imposed by a teacher. And then the most important part of writing instruction is already taught.

 

I noticed that whenever I first try to discuss the process of writing with a group of secondary school students, they rarely like or fully understand how to outline or brainstorm. Or maybe they don’t like it because they don’t understand it. They think the “full writing process” is a waste of time. Outlining feels artificial, inauthentic, as if it would rob them of their creativity. Brainstorming, they think, only gets in their way. It feels reassuring to “just write” or just get something down on a page.

 

It’s helpful to ask students directly how they approach writing, what works for them and what is most difficult, but you have to listen and watch closely for answers. They might not be able or willing to say it all in words. And you need ways to individualize instruction in response to what they say.

 

Sometimes, the problem is that they don’t know how to organize their ideas or they are easily overwhelmed by material. In that case, offer a form to guide them step by step through structuring their essay. Or, show students an old, pre-computer scriptwriting process, that involves writing, on 3 x 5 cards, each scene you envision for the movie. Then you place the cards on a table and move them around to find the most appropriate plot line. You could adapt this to a research or persuasive essay by recording facts, theories, and lines of reasoning on the cards and move them around to build the strongest argument for your position. Or you could use a concept map or computer graphics to serve a similar purpose.

 

Underneath their resistance to writing might be a lack of trust in their intellect or they might not be able to focus attention enough to hold onto and clearly hear their own ideas. In that case, I explain that writing can be part of thinking. The purpose of brainstorming is to allow you to work with your brain and not against it. The brain processes that foster insight and creativity are different from those that edit, or check spelling and grammar. So doing a brainstorm frees the mind from anything that is irrelevant to simply getting down a first draft. But even more, I talk about uncovering your own truth. Brainstorming is a way to free your mind from assumptions and get at what isn’t initially clear. It is a way to integrate material and synthesize information. Start by assigning meaningful topics or questions to write about or get students involved in creating the topics. Then use prompts to help students understand the question or assignment: “How are you hearing the question? What is it asking you to do? What are the different parts of the question?”

 

Then brainstorm how to approach the question: “What is it that you really feel, think and want to say? What intrigues you about this subject? What do you love or hate about it? What are your assumptions?” Sometimes, when you don’t know where to begin an essay or can’t figure out how to answer a question, make the essay the unraveling of your confusion. Start your brainstorm or the essay itself by voicing what troubles or confuses you. By going directly into your confusion, it unravels.

 

When you brainstorm, just put your pen to the paper and write whatever comes to you in response to the prompt. “What do you hear in your head? What thoughts and ideas come to you? If you get lost or confused, write down your confusion. Write what you hear, hear what you write. Edit later. Write until what you hear feels real, honest, exciting, and large enough to do justice to the topic. Write until the topic feels new or fresh to you.” Much of this instruction I learned from a wonderful writing practice called proprioceptive writing, developed by Linda Trichter Metcalf and Tobin Simon. It also asks students to use a pen or pencil instead of a computer or phone because when you write with the hand, you actually shape the words and thus have a greater ability to see and hear what you write.

 

Emphasize that any writing, not just short stories or poetry or film scripts, is creative, and can follow the creative process. You begin with preparation and immersion in the material. You go through a time of frustration, even confusion and questioning. Then you allow an incubation period. You step back. You meditate. You play games. Especially for younger students, but its great with anyone, have some fun. Loosen up. For example, if the assignment is to write a persuasive essay, ask the students, ”If the different sides or aspects of this question were animals, which ones would they be?” You can imagine each side of an argument has a different tone of voice and have them speak to each other. Or you can have students draw the central questions they are dealing with. Then insight and understanding comes more easily to them. Then you test what you think is correct.

 

When writing is explained in this way, it’s creative, not just work. When the student’s actual thoughts, obstacles and ways of thinking are made part of the process, the assignment becomes less an imposition and more of a revelation. The student feels like you’re helping them discover their truth and power, not taking it away. And that’s exactly what you want and what writing is about.

 

*For more information on teaching writing and on a process of thinking creatively, critically, and with compassion, see my newly released book, Compassionate Critical Thinking.

To Question, First Listen

Several teachers asked me: “How do you get students to question, or ask questions?” I often say that, to start any unit or start the school year, find out what questions students have about the subject. What do they want or feel a need to know? But, students don’t always know or won’t say. Their questions are not always clear to them. The same for most of us. So, what then?

 

What do you do when you’re unsure about what you feel or think, or you don’t know what’s bothering or driving you? In other words, how do you hear what you’re saying to yourself?  Or, how do you improve your ability to listen, not just hear; to see, not just look? That’s a big question, bigger than I can answer.

 

Some people think a question is a sign of ignorance. Actually, it’s a sign of strength. A question is halfway to an answer. You need to recognize that you don’t know in order to come to knowing or to changing a viewpoint. So, teach and learn how to live with not-knowing and to live with questions.

 

One important element of teaching questioning in school is creating an environment or school culture that honors questioning and honors student voices, both in and out of the classroom. For example, a democratic school honors student voices and gives students a sense that their viewpoints are important. If they think their views are important, they will be more motivated to listen to themselves. If the school does not give students a sincere voice, students have more of a struggle to recognize value in their own mind and heart.

 

But what if you don’t have or can’t create a democratic school? Or even if you do, it’s not enough. The teacher in a classroom can model asking and listening– and questioning. Teachers should make their thinking visible, so the student can do the same. When teachers enter the classroom as if they are guides to learning, not know-it-alls; if teachers admit they lack knowledge and have questions, students feel more inclined to do the same.

 

Teach model questions. For example, questions to ask when you’re discussing a topic or reading a text. Questions to ask to test the speaker and ones to ask to test your own understanding. My favorites are ‘what,’ and ‘why’ and then how. “What exactly was said? What was the context? What was meant?” And: “Why was it said? What reasons would/did the person give for saying it? What is the proof?” Then: “How did they or would you apply this?”

 

What you are after is interoception, a relatively new word that means “perceiving within,” or perceiving one’s internal state. Humans have evolved brain systems devoted to this skill. Interoception is crucial for thinking clearly and acting with awareness. Mindfulness or learning how to be aware moment-by-moment of thoughts, feeling, and sensations is one way to train interoception.

 

Another way is to pick up a pen and write down on a piece of paper exactly what you hear, now, in your mind, without editing. Write even your wonder about what you’re writing. And then read Writing Your Mind Alive, by Linda Trichter-Metcalf and Tobin Simon. It describes a practice of revelation and understanding called proprioceptive writing.  The practice helped me find joy in writing, after I had lost it, and deepen understanding and self-trust.

 

Improvisational theatre games can be adapted to the classroom. They’re fun, and also teach you how to listen not only for your inner speech but for that of others. I’ll describe a few exercises I have used frequently in a classroom:

Show the class a photograph of a few people interacting in public. Ask students to study the photo and then write, “who-what-why;” who the people are, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Tell them to simply listen to their intuition and let their imaginations work.

Give students one word, one that easily evokes an archetype, such as ‘no’ or ‘wonder’ and ask them: say the word to yourself a few times. Then describe an imagined person who this word personifies. To take this to the next step, have students create three people, from three contrasting words, like ‘yes-no-maybe.’ Put these three in a situation and imagine what will happen.

A more physical exercise might be mirroring. Pair up students. Have the people face each other, hands up, palms toward the partner. You can begin by having one person act as the leader, and then switch back and forth until there’s no clear leader.  When one moves, the other mirrors the movement. Make the movements fairly easy, at first. Do not lose eye contact or break the plane of the mirror.

 

Mirroring is a good way to introduce empathy training. There are many meditation practices to develop empathy and compassion. According to Paul Ekman, who has studied emotion extensively, empathy can take different forms. It begins with recognizing or reading what someone is feeling or thinking. It can then progress to “feeling with” another. Add caring and the willingness to act for another’s welfare and you have compassionate empathy. Add putting yourself at risk and you have altruism. Empathy is not “self-sacrifice” in the sense of not valuing your life. Instead, valuing (and clearly perceiving) the messages of your own mind and heart allows you to value the mind and heart of others, and vice versa.

 

To question, first listen. To listen, first care. To care—hopefully needs no further reason.

Writing As A Process of Discovering Your Truths And Power

Sometimes teachers ask themselves, “How do I get students to use the full writing process, to start with brainstorming and proceed to outlining, first draft, etc.,?” I think that question assumes that the writing process, as usually taught, is the most appropriate way for each student to approach writing. I prefer to start with: “How do I help each student to think clearly and express that clarity?” Or: “How do I help this student to write well?” Or: “How do I motivate this student to write?” And: “How do you write what is your own truth?” Discovering what works best for you, and why, can help you relate to your student’s struggles. And when writing is viewed as revelation or discovery, a means not only for expressing but thinking critically about yourself and your life, then writing becomes intrinsically motivating. It is not just something imposed by a teacher. And then the most important part of writing instruction is already taught.

 

I noticed that whenever I first try to discuss the process of writing with a group of secondary school students, they rarely like or fully understand how to outline or brainstorm. Or maybe they don’t like it because they don’t understand it. They think the “full writing process” is a waste of time. Outlining feels artificial, inauthentic. Brainstorming, they think, only gets in their way. They want to “just write” or just get something down on a page.

 

It’s helpful to ask students how they approach writing and what is most difficult for them, but you have to listen and watch closely for answers. They might not be able or willing to say it all in words. And you need ways to individualize instruction in response to what they say.

 

Sometimes, the problem is that they don’t know how to organize their ideas or they are easily overwhelmed by material. In that case, I offer a form guiding them step by step through structuring their essay. Or, in the past, I showed students an old process used by scriptwriters. It involves writing, on 3 x 5 cards, each scene you envision for the movie. Then you place the cards on a table and move them around to find the most appropriate plotline. You could do the same thing with a research or persuasive essay by recording facts, theories, and lines of reasoning on the cards and move them around to build the strongest argument for your position. Or you could use a concept map or computer graphics to serve a similar purpose.

 

Other times, students feel an outline or brainstorm takes away the creativity. Or, underneath that, they don’t trust their intellect or feel that if the process were too organized it would chase away their ideas. In that case, I explain that brainstorming allows them to work with their own brain and not against it. The brain processes that foster insight and creativity are different from those that edit, or check spelling and grammar. So doing a brainstorm frees the mind from anything that is irrelevant to writing a first draft.

 

But even more, I talk about uncovering your own truth. “What is it that you really feel, think and want to say?” Brainstorming is a way to free your mind from assumptions and get at what isn’t initially clear. It is a way to integrate material and synthesize information.

 

Actually, it’s helpful to talk about writing as part of thinking from the very beginning of an assignment or project. Start by giving students meaningful choices to write about. Then use prompts to help brainstorm how to approach the subject: “What intrigues you about this subject? What do you love or hate about it? What are your assumptions?” To help students understand the question or assignment, ask: “How are you hearing the question? What is it asking you to do? What are the different parts of the question?”

 

When you brainstorm, what do you do? Just put your pen to the paper and write whatever comes to you in response to the prompt. “What do you hear in your head? What thoughts and ideas come to you? If you get lost or confused, write down your confusion.  Write what you hear, hear what you write. Don’t edit. Just let your self go free. Edit later. Write until what you hear feels real, honest, exciting, and large enough to do justice to the topic. Write until the topic feels new or fresh to you.” Sometimes, when you don’t know where to begin an essay or can’t figure out how to answer a question, make the essay the unraveling of your confusion. Start your brainstorm or the essay itself by voicing what troubles or confuses you. By going directly into it, it unravels. Much of this instruction I learned from a wonderful form of meditative writing called proprioceptive writing. This practice can be adapted to a classroom setting. It asks students to use a pen or pencil instead of a computer or phone because when you write with the hand, you actually shape the words and thus have a greater ability to see and hear what you write.

 

Emphasize that any writing, not just short stories or poetry or film scripts, is creative, and can follow the creative process. You begin with preparation and immersion in the material. You go through a time of frustration, even confusion, questioning. Then, before insight, you allow an incubation period. You step back. You meditate. You do exercises. You play games. Especially for younger students, but its great with anyone, have some fun. Loosen up. For example, if the assignment is to write a persuasive essay, ask the students, ”If the different sides or aspects of this question were animals, which ones would they be?” Or, you can imagine each side of an argument has a different tone of voice. Or you can have students draw the central questions they are dealing with.

 

When writing is explained in this way, it’s creative, not just work, not only logic. When the student’s actual thoughts, obstacles and ways of thinking are made part of the process, the assignment becomes less an imposition and more of a revelation. The student feels like you’re helping them discover their truth and power, not taking it away. And that’s exactly what you want and what writing is about.

 

 

 

*Over the next few months, I will be devoting more time to completing my book on teaching, less to these blogs, so don’t be surprised if I miss a week now and then. Wish me well.