The TASC List: Write on

Certainly most of us are impressed with the journalistic skills of the student columnists in this newspaper. They have represented themselves and the high school in the most favorable way.

They have informed, enlightened and entertained. Have you wondered how they reached this level of expression in their young lives? Were they born with a special gift for writing? Did they acquire it through careful practice? Did some special teacher show them the way?

Many English instructors and professors think that to become a good writer one must grind away at the craft, building the skill carefully one sentence at a time, like a stone mason erecting a structure. Assembling the pieces one small step at a time.

A university professor and chairman of the English department at a Midwestern school tells this story to illustrate one path to writing success. He believes that for most of us the skill is not simply acquired through interest or example, but through repetitive work and continued practice. Here’s the background.

His family included three children, and despite his own national reputation in the field, none of them were initially proficient in writing, enthusiastic about it, or particularly interested. They all struggled. For the first two, both boys, he made them follow a strict regimen.

Each had to write a 250-word “paper” every single day while in the early years of elementary school. On lined notebook paper, three-hole punched for retention, at about 10 words per line. The topic was theirs to choose – anything they wanted to write about. It could cover raising a puppy, playing right wing, or learning to dive. But each day the 250 words had to be produced neatly, punched and filed.

Once the writing started, it had to be completed in one sitting. The hockey carpool could wait until they finished, or leave without them. No paper, no other activity.

The boys hated this process, railed against it, cried about it. Much gnashing of teeth, lots of emotion, and grinding away. The order of the day. They rebelled. They lost. They wrote. They considered dad as an unrelenting tyrant and inflexible taskmaster. But they produced the papers and filled the notebooks. Correction was minimal. Feedback not requested. Editing not given. Painful for the father and the sons.

It turns out that both young men became university professors in their own right in English departments in the upper Midwest. They write on today. The third child, the girl, was exempted from the method. Her father had finally tired of the effort, the wrangling, and the pain of it all.

Then one family Thanksgiving as all gathered around the table, the father observed that his children had all fared well in their chosen professions, and that he was proud of each of them. The boys had found success in their departments and the daughter had received recognition in her field entirely unrelated to the task of putting words together. He warmly expressed his pride in each of their performances. Whereupon his daughter surprisingly announced to all assembled, “But Dad, you never let me write any papers.” That very small word, in light of that family experience, was filled with meaning and suffused with irony.

For anyone facing the interest or the need to develop a young writer, you may want to consider this actual situation. Think of it as a model or laboratory for growing interest, proficiency, and just plain talent. Neither pleasant nor easy. But straightforward and potentially very effective. Simply let them write on.  

TASC stands for Toward A Stronger Community. Contact: brennerjoe@aol.com.