On writing, privilege, and trusting yourself

group joe jay

I’m taking a writing class.  It’s the second this year, and it’s good because it doesn’t let me off the hook where writing is concerned.  It’s far too easy to procrastinate and tell yourself that you’ll write tomorrow, or maybe on the weekend.  While I say I need to write, I confess I don’t have a writing “habit”.  I don’t sit down each day at 8am and write until 5pm.  Some people do.  God bless, I say.  I write when I get an itch, which is pretty often, but it’s not on a 8-5 work schedule.  I guess I don’t think writers should feel like they need to adhere to the corporate world’s idea of the working life.  A friend of mine believes this kind of thing is part of the over-professionalization of practically everything.  That may be.  Maybe I’ll change my mind about a schedule if ever I make my living as a writer.

So in this writing class I received a great article from The Huffington Post, written by Pat Schneider.  She wrote How the Light Gets In and Writing as a Spiritual Practice.  In this article,  “Original Voice, Original Genius”, Schneider writes about her own struggle with finding her “voice” in writing, and how writing  is still seen as a plaything of the privileged.  “I was taught subtly – and so very well- that the only good writers were those with privilege.”  She writes about a ninth-grader who produced a Shakespearean sonnet in Shakespearean English but was too terrified to produce anything in his own voice.  She writes of the poverty of her own childhood, and how she knew education was the ticket out,  but she took this to mean that she had to imitate T.S. Eliot and others like him, instead of writing about her own experiences.  She said she didn’t write in her own voice until her 40s.  She says, “The ancient Hebrew poet said it best:  We are created in the image of the creator.  If that is true, we, too, are creators, and language, voice, is our first, our primary artistic creation.”

I tutor writing at a community college, and I often bump up against this problem.  There are some students who don’t know how to begin a sentence, much less an academic paper.  “How should I start?” they ask me.  I have always started a tutoring session with asking them about the assignment, and then asking them what they think of the reading.  Just getting them talking about the project.  Now I take Pat Schneider’s advice, and ask them what would you say to your best friend about the reading?  How would you just chat about this paper?

I fear far too many people see writing – and writing in their own voice – as something far outside themselves, as something only “certain people” do, or can do.  These students think writing comes from the outside, and not from within.  They have no faith in themselves, in their own ideas, and in what they have to say.

I also volunteer at the local library, tutoring a Mexican man who wants to get his GED.  Last week at our session, I had him write about a book he had just read out loud about wolves.  He would say one perfectly good sentence, and then instead of writing it down, he would stop and think hard about what he “should” write, as if what he said in the first place wasn’t good enough.  I pointed this out to him.  I said the second sentence you said is marvelous, but what you first said was marvelous, too.  I don’t want him to be afraid to write.  I don’t want him to be afraid that he isn’t “good enough” in some way.  He’s very good.

Pat Schneider writes:

“When will we stop considering as art only the voices of the privileged?  The flaw we hear in “bad writing” is not absence of knowing Shakespeare.  The flaw is hiding our first, deepest voices, suppressing them and coming to believe they don’t exist.  It may not sound at all like Shakespeare, but it is the only platform solid enough to support learning craft. . .The voice that has listened in the womb and practiced every day all day and even while dreaming at night is absolutely original, powerful and, therefore, the stuff of genius.”


I have often thought about all the untold stories in the world.  What would the world sound like if more people told the truth of their lives?  Maybe we couldn’t handle it.  But I still want to read those voices.  I want to know those stories.



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