The Promise of Writing, Revisited
During the week Simone Biles chose her mental health over the pursuit of Olympic gold, I was revisiting two novels I had assigned my sophomores for summer reading: Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X. In both novels, two young women—Chopin’s Edna is twenty-eight and Acevedo’s Xiomara is sixteen—navigate the demands of their families and communities in a journey towards self-expression and trusting themselves, and art plays a key role in sustaining them through this process: for Edna, it is painting and for Xiomara, it is writing poetry. While Edna’s success is a bit ambiguous, Xiomara’s is crystal clear: “I only know,” she declares in the final lines of the novel, “that learning to believe in the power of my own words has been the most freeing experience of my life. It has brought me the most light” (357).
Similar words echoed throughout the multiple interviews Simone Biles gave following her decision to remove herself from competition, sparking countless praises across the social media spectrum, including a short clip narrated by Taylor Swift: “[Simone’s] voice has been as significant as her talents.” For these three women, trusting themselves was not innate or automatic; it was a skill they developed over time, with work, with failures and missteps, and with varying degrees of success. As I have joked with my students, the novel is titled The Awakening, not The Awakened; it is a process, not a final product.
While thinking about Simone, Xiomara, Edna, and the messy process of learning to trust one’s self, I read a draft of Mary Beth Kemp’s recently published article on Her Voice at the Table, “Finding Peace in Imperfection,” in which she beautifully and honestly documents her own struggles with self-doubt. Although I did not have this gem of a woman in my classroom, her struggle to feel comfortable knowing and then using her voice is one that, in my sixteen years of teaching writing, I have frequently seen. The particulars of Mary Beth’s story are of course unique to her, but the larger threads of self-doubt and uncertainty are not. They are in Simone, Edna, Xiomara, and countless others—including me. In fact, Mary Beth’s piece evoked a vivid memory from nearly two decades ago when, as a college junior, I sat on the floor of my Austin apartment and cried in front of my Toshiba laptop, the glow from the screen the only thing lighting the darkened room. I had a paper to write and seemingly nothing to say. “Why be an English and American Studies double major if I can’t even write and have nothing important to say,” I cried into the nothingness. I of course wrote something, and I am sure it was fine, but the anxious uncertainty of my own voice still lingers.
More importantly, though, Mary Beth’s words reminded me that in a couple short weeks, another round of young women will enter mine and my colleagues’ classrooms on similar kinds of journeys. In Kate’s opening piece for this blog, “The Promise of Writing,” she recalled her spring 2020 epiphany that there must be a connection between writing and student well-being. Even before this global pandemic but perhaps most especially now, “our students,” Kate writes, “need their academic pursuits to have meaning and support their growth as people, not just students in various content-areas.” The skills they develop in our classroom should of course help them to think more deeply, to analyze more closely, and to write with more clarity, but they should also help them navigate obstacles, cultivate voice and agency, build community, and, as Xiomara in the Poet X might say, exercise “volition.” So “how,” Kate posed, “do you take a nebulous and vague term like ‘wellness’ and make it tangible and explicitly linked to instruction?” How can reading and writing help build the well-being competencies of resiliency, empathy, self-expression, and a growth mindset?
Kate’s piece prompted countless questions from others in our teaching community about how they might use, create, or refine their own classroom writing practices to develop these well-being competencies. What is the promise of writing? How might we continue to imagine ways for students to experience and internalize writing as a safe, fun place? To see writing as a messy process that helps them find, navigate, and begin to trust their own voices? To use writing to develop empathy and resilience, both in the classroom and beyond?
In revisiting articles from the blog, we can find different kinds of answers to these questions. Kyle Lee’s use of cliché drafts in “The Perfection of Imperfection.” Jessica Bailey’s intentional journal prompts that settle the chaos at the beginning of class. Sarette Albin’s truth and beauty project that empowers students to pause and relish the wonders of language. Journalism teacher Melinda Smith’s daily news rings that builds trust and community. Even math teachers joined the fun: Claudia Mathison showed us how using written reflection in her math classes helps her students process their growth, and Katie Hayes continued the conversation by sharing how her students use writing to navigate the creative challenges posed by her authentic assessments.
Our mission here at Her Voice at the Table is to keep recognizing the ways our colleagues are doing this work and to give them the space to imagine new possibilities. While most of our voices have hailed from English classrooms, in the year to come we want to expand our table, asking educators from other academic disciplines to join us, sharing the ways they use writing to build student well-being. Writing is not and should never be the sole province of English; this line of thinking limits not only what writing is but also students’ perspectives on where, when, or why we write. Mary Beth was our inaugural student writer; we hope that other students, past and present, will join us. And while we will continue to focus on student writing and well-being, we have reached out to administrators who have also used writing in their daily practices as school leaders. And as Kate continues her innovation grant work, she will continue to illuminate the links between well-being, social justice, and racial literacy. A blog that began less than a year ago is now growing in ways that we could only have imagined.
To be honest, the back-to-school dread and apprehension is real; I’ve already had countless nightmares these past few weeks: no syllabus, unruly class, forgetting to attend class, etc. But what is also true is that I cannot wait to be back in the classroom with the students, digging into the messiness of teaching: the feedback, the discussions, the planning and re-planning (and re-planning again). As if sent by an angel, a student emailed me belated answers to her college rec form as I began to write this piece. In part of her answer to the question “If you were to brag about any one thing you did well this year, what would you say it was,” she wrote quite a bit about finding her “niche” in writing and reading, closing with these words: “I finally found the key to enjoying writing: staying true to yourself.” Girl, you nailed it. Isn’t that also the promise of writing?
Megan Griffin is a found poet who finds herself poetically searching.
Acevedo, Elizabeth. The Poet X. Harper Collins, 2018.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Dover, 1993.