Our basic need to express the anger, loneliness, torment, bewilderment or joy will produce the best writing. Being assigned a topic, assigned a form, assigned an audience, and assigned a rubric undercuts the very human element that gives all writing its vibrancy.
Ta-Nehisi Coates in his newest book, Between the World and Me, says about his academic experience, “I wanted to pursue things, to know things, but I could not match the means of knowing that came naturally to me with the expectations of professors. The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them in all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people's interest” (pg. 48).
Good writing starts with a writer’s own interest, which is grounded in her life, her mind, her observations about the world. Writing that originates in the mind of a teacher is, at best, an exercise, or more likely, as Coates says, “a jail.” If teachers want better writing from their students, they must give students permission to declare their own curiosities and time to pursue them.
In rhetoric, this pressing need is called exigence, which is defined as the circumstances that necessitate communication. Writing without exigence is futile, dry, and exhausting to produce and to read. It’s like asking kids to ride stationary bikes across America. They figure out the minute they get on the bike, they’re not going anywhere fast. They may build up great leg muscles and endurance, but they learn nothing about navigating an actual journey or anticipating perils. Plus the scenery never changes.
Our job as teachers is to help students recognize their own exigencies, to shape them into topics, help them expose their hearts and examine with utter seriousness the considerations of their mind. Writing about what you know is always good advice, but, more importantly, writing about what you care about is essential. Never discount the theories, hunches, spites, paranoias, or conundrums of the student writer. For some reason, these cares are important. These untold stories, Maya Angelou said, were an agony to carry around, were begging to be communicated.
In 1986, I enrolled in a theatre class at the University of Kentucky taught by Charlie Oates, who now teaches at the University of California-San Diego. At the beginning of the class, Oates sent several Marc Chagall prints (I and The Village, Over the Town, and The Promenade were the ones I remember, although there may have been more) to elementary schools in eastern Kentucky and asked teachers to use the paintings with their classes as inspiration for writing a story. After students wrote their stories, their teachers sent them to our class. We read through the pieces and chose several to produce. Before the end of the semester, we traveled to these schools and performed the short sketches, a program called Chagallplay, and at the end of the performances, the authors of the original stories came forward and were recognized.
I was only 19 and had never taught writing at this point, but I recognized something very powerful as we read through the selections. Many students had written lovely stories clearly drawn from the narratives in Chagall's work, but we also discovered the most powerful ones often had little or nothing to do with what was represented on the canvas. One student wrote a long story, based in title only of The Promenade, about a dysfunctional domestic situation where the father was an alcoholic, the mother was abandoning the marriage, and the children were all scared at night. In every group of papers, four or five kids went rogue from the assignment and wrote from some exigence to which only they were privy. Someone suggested perhaps those kids saw in Chagall’s work something we couldn’t, but I feel like there might have been another urgency at play: those kids wrote what needed to be written regardless of the prompt. Chagallplay was just the opportunity, just the key to unlock something inside them that demanded expression.
A good writing prompt can do this, but letting students choose their own writing projects is really where exigence begins. Ask students what they believe in, what their future holds, what dreams they want to pursue; writing projects will emerge. When students begin to understand they can write about anything they want, they will naturally choose the topics about which they care the most, about which there is circumstance demanding communication. Writing that springs from a situation so powerful it compels a student to speak certainly will prefigure voice, tone, and purpose.