Words that Don’t Know Themselves: Building Language Bridges through Creative Writing

On the first day of the 10th year of my education, I entered the classroom labeled “Kemmer Anderson,” a classroom tucked as far as possible away from any tour groups that might come peeking through the English wing of the McCallie School for Boys.  Inside, I was confronted by a giant table covered in layers of book-and-paper sediment crusted together with fossilized coffee spills that had surely collected over the course of several years.  At the head of the table sat a man who seemed nothing like a teacher.  His glazed eyes peered out from a tangle of uncombed hair and didn’t seem to notice the students who had entered his classroom and taken seats around the giant table.  He fiddled with his hand-knit tie, failing to straighten it, and then plopped it haphazardly over the shoulder of his denim shirt.  Little did I suspect that this washed-out hippie would affect the course of my education the way no other teacher ever had.  His name was Yogi, he was my 10th grade English Teacher, and the taught me how to write.

Yogi’s character fit his appearance perfectly.  He never marked absences or tardies. In fact, he probably failed to notice whether or not his students ever came to class at all.  One day a devious impulse overcame our class as we snuck one by one under the giant table in the middle of the classroom.  Only when twelve out of the fifteen students had already made it under the desk did Yogi finally realize that students were disappearing.  He stopped in mid-sentence, let out a confused grunt, asked us where we were hiding, and when we returned to our seats, finished his sentence.  Despite his detachment from reality, however, many of his students will claim to this day that he was the best teacher they ever had.  His talents lied not in his incoherent lectures or utter lack of classroom organization, but rather in his writing assignments.

Yogi’s paper assignments were unusual in several ways. First of all, his papers had no deadlines.  Sometimes he would put a date or a suggestion on his prompts, but these were always coupled with a mumbled “just whenever you can get it to me will be fine.”  In addition, his prompts rarely exceeded but a single word.  My prompt for a 10 page final paper for the 1st semester of my sophomore year simply read, “Justice.”  The 2nd semester of the same year, I had a 12-14 page paper with the prompt, “Women.”  These one-word prompts were not veiled attempts to elicit a thoughtful analysis of the topic at hand.  He simply wanted us to write about whatever we wanted to.  We could certainly write analytical papers if we so desired, but unless they uncovered some great truth or unveiled some new creative thought, they rarely earned a grade above an A-.  To earn a higher grade, one had to write an epic poem or a sweeping narrative that somehow addressed the prompt in a creative way.  When asked to write a paper about the characters in the Iliad, I once constructed a narrative in which Agamemnon came charging into our classroom with axe in hand and began decapitating students while delivering a fiery speech about his situation in the Iliad.  I received the highest grade in the class.

As much as it sometimes seemed otherwise, Yogi had an important reason to assign papers the way he did.  By encouraging freeform thought without any attention paid to grammar, spelling, organization, or any other convention of the English language, his prompts were not so much assignments to which we had to apply our writing abilities as much as invitations to build a bridge from within to the outside world.  He taught us how to write not by creating a standardized assignment and correcting according to a rubric as some teachers might.  Instead he taught us how to write by seducing us into teaching ourselves how to write.  His prompts lured out some thought or feeling from within, pasted it to the page, and made it known to its previously unaware author.  By repeatedly expressing ourselves and then seeing our own forms of expression, we learned about ourselves, how we write, and how we could write better.

In an article titled “Psychoanalysis and Education,” Shoshana Felman, addresses precisely this kind of learning, discussing “knowledge that does not know itself.” Felman’s article discusses the way a psychoanalyst or a teacher can help a patient or a student to reveal that unknown knowledge to the self.  “Unknown knowledge” seems at first paradoxical, but in a Freudian framework, it fits nicely into the unconscious part of the mind.  The unconscious knows something which the conscious does not and an internal dialogue sheds awareness upon this already known bit of information.  By creating an internal dialogue between reader and writer of one’s own expressions, Yogi’s prompts acted like an analyst, tempting us patients to reveal to ourselves how to write and what to write about.  They offered just a single word and then sat back and listened to us teach ourselves with fingers clicking away on our respective keyboards.

Yogi’s open-ended writing assignments fit somewhere into the same framework as Sylvia Ashton Warner’s “key words” and “organic writing.”  In Teacher, Warner recalls her method of building a bridge between the native language and culture of the Maori children and the European culture of the classroom.  By encouraging creative expression in her students, Warner helps them create through their own interests a bridge from their modes of Maori expression at home to the “Janet and John” books which epitomize the European English-speaking culture of the classroom.  She tiptoes somewhere on the edge of a coherent theory, but never movies beyond a how-to guide for this case study in the Maori culture of New Zealand.  Her emphasis on maximizing students’ freedom and refraining from criticism serve her Maori children well, but one wonders whether these methods might be applicable in other cultures besides the Maori and with students of all ages, not just children.

Warner returns again and again to the concept of a bridge, a transition from one culture or language into another.  Her “key words” and “organic writing” lure children out of this native culture by allowing children the freedom to go wherever they want with their reading and writing.  She never draws a connection between this situation and the universal state of children in education, however.  Each in their own way, every child begins life with his or her own language and own culture.  From different cultures of power in Delpit’s essay to different languages in Nieto’s, a child’s home culture always differs in some way from the institutional culture she or he must grow accustomed to.  The gaps between cultures may be wider for some students than from others, but in every culture and at every age, students are faced with the necessity to build bridges between themselves and the outside world.  Warner’s organic methods of teaching are thus applicable not only to Maori children, but to students of all languages and of all cultures.

Aside from a few exceptions (such as Plato’s Meno) most authors seem to deal with this organic, psychoanalytic teaching in the context of language.  More than any other discipline, language gets to the very root of this self-expressive mode of education.

Chamoiseau’s autobiography, School Days, addresses the way words themselves hold a particular power which makes them a particularly suitable meaning for building bridges between the internal self and the outside world.  Throughout his autobiography, a recurring dialectic between Creole and French tugs students between their own internal, native, culture, and the foreign culture of the French world.  In one case, Chamoiseau recalls two boys letting loose their native Creole tongues:

“Here the Creole language came into its own: the resentments that had built up beneath the French veneer had charged our native tongue with awesome hidden powers. Banished from the classroom, it could here (with rescuedwords, mutantwords, slitherywords, brokenwideopenwords, disorderlywords, ravinglunaticwords…) transmute good feelings into bitter chemical reactions, jolt a frightened sob into the growling of a mangy mongrel, flog a shiver into sheer epilepsy.” (Chamoiseau, 91)

His account reveals a deep, internal frustration felt by those unable to bridge their native tongue with the institutional language of the classroom.  By forcing another language in, rather than pulling another one out, the teacher of these children has balled up their native culture into an explosive wad of emotion forced never to express itself.  Had their teacher allowed them the use of key words or creative writing to vent their Creole language, their unknown words may have started to know themselves, and hopeless students like Big Bellybutton may have been able to build a bridge to the expressiveness of the French language.

Though never allowed the chance in school, Chamoiseau recalls his own bridge-making process, in which he wrote stories of his own in a mixture of Creole and French, outside the classroom, gradually developing an appreciation for both languages and cultures.  As is apparent in the spattering of Creole throughout School Days, he still values Creole as a viable and powerful mode of expression.  A review from the L.A. Times on the back of the book states, “Chamoiseau’s language is a curious mixed breed, enough classical French to please the Academy and enough Creole to paint his subject.”  Because he took the initiative to build his own bridge between Creole and French, Chamoiseau gained access to a palette of expressiveness unavailable to most.  Though his teacher forbade him to practice this expression in the classroom, Chamoiseau nonetheless succeeded in his own self-education.  His education would be virtually impossible to replicate, however.  For those unable to assign creative writing to themselves, a curriculum like Yogi’s makes education possible.

Yogi’s method of teaching was a reflection of Warner’s in an American society amongst 10th grade boys.  In the same way that she brought children to know the words that had never before known themselves, Yogi taught us to write the writing which had never before known itself.  By bringing out rather than pushing in, each of these teachers practiced education in the etymological sense of the word, as a “leading out of.”  Whether from one language to another, from a sub-dialect to a common one, or from the language of one’s own mind into the minds of those in the outside world, creative writing provides a mode of education all too commonly neglected in the standardized, replicable curricula and rubrics of our education system.  Particularly in higher learning, creative writing has a reputation as a discipline for those unable to succeed in other, more rigorous ones.  This stigma is an unfortunate one.  Regardless of a student’s age or ability level, maximized freedom and minimized criticism of creative writing allows students to better know themselves, better teach themselves, and better learn.  Though other subjects certainly have their place, the expressiveness involved in creative writing allows students to build bridges between themselves and the outside world in a way that no other discipline so effectively allows.

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About T Anderson

I am a graduate of Amherst College. I taught for a year in Harlem and now teach in Brooklyn.
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