Read well; write well

The following article comes from Sam Lenton, Head of English at Wycombe Abbey School in High Wycombe, UK.

We all, apparently, have a novel within us, possibly even bursting to get out, like a rebellious appendix or a tantalising secret. While there are enough prolific writers out there to reduce the burden on the rest of us to pound our keyboards until a paperback appears, writing creatively is a consistent feature of school life and one that can elicit both joy and despair – quite possibly all at the same time.

It may seem a strange confession for someone who recently self-published a poetry collection but one of my most dreaded homework tasks at school was the absurdly-simple-sounding instruction to ‘Write a poem’.

What should it be about?’ we would ask. 
Anything you want.
‘Does it have to rhyme?’ we chimed.
Whatever you want.
‘How long does it need to be?’ we begged.
Long enough to say what you want to say.
‘But what do we want to say?’ we persisted.
Anything. Anything is fine. Just start writing. About anything.

Anything? It’s hard to see how we could go wrong. I know about things, I’ve come across things and so I just need to choose one of those things. A poem about a thing.

The sage advice to ‘write about what you know’ certainly has merit but writing, alas, is rarely as simple as that. As a mechanical process, there’s a delightful simplicity in using a pen, pencil, wax crayon, quill, or whatever else you’ve got at hand to put marks on a page and communicate thought and understanding. Put a keyboard beneath our fingers or activate dictation software and the mechanics alter but the words will pour onto the screen. 

Sit a child in front of a piano for the first time and notes will be played, sounds will be heard and some sense of a melody may even appear. Put a paintbrush in their hand and they will make colourful splodges, stripes and streaks. Mix a few ingredients in a bowl and something edible will appear. 

We can all make and create, but the challenge we face is to do it well. Even though a piano may make a noise resembling music from a child’s first encounter with it, we are many hundreds of hours of practice away from the masterful proficiency of a concert pianist, whose supreme control of the instrument shows us all just what it is capable of. Given the choice of which performer we would like to listen to, it would take some significant emotional attachment to the child not to choose the concert pianist over them! We admire the mastery of a craft because we are shown what is possible and can relish the sensory pleasure it brings. 

Our libraries are filled with examples of writers who have unveiled the power of language. As educators seeking to inspire others to follow in their path, it is our duty to captivate them with the beauty of written expression, to help remove the barriers so that they can use language to create, and to be the cheerleaders who celebrate what they have produced. Our job is to take them on a journey from embracing the mechanical process of writing to aspiring to the mastery of the skill. As with music, painting and cooking, the outcomes won’t all be the same – and it is important that we are fine with that because we are nurturing creatives who believe in their own distinctive voice rather than robots who all churn out identical products – but there is much we can do to guide them down the path and to show them not only what the written form is capable of but what they are capable of. 

Continuing to think about writing in relation to other art forms provides a helpful reminder that tastes vary and that we sometimes have to learn how to appreciate something. As a fully signed-up member of the Virginia Woolf fan club – I’m gazing at her portrait out of the corner of my eye as I type this – I would love nothing more than to spend my days reading aloud Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and The Waves, basking in the beauty of her expression, every eager ear bent in my direction as I transform hearts and minds. Yet, bizarrely, it seems that not even every English teacher responds to her words like I do, let alone those we teach. Some scoff, some sneer, some glaze over and dream of a Woolf-less world. As hard as it is to admit, not everyone wants to bask in Virginia’s greatness and we may therefore need to look elsewhere for examples that will captivate. The key is to showcase what writing can do in a range of voices, styles and genres, like tuning the radio until we find the station that puts a smile on our face. 

We are nurturing creatives who believe in their own distinctive voice.

Reading well goes beyond simply selecting good literature, though. The score for a grade 8 piano piece looks impressive on the page but means little unless we hear it performed by a skilled musician. Why should the written word be any different? Reading aloud is a skill that takes practice and it is one that is too often overlooked. The right pace, tone and emphasis can transform a text and lift the words off the page to accomplish far more than it initially looked like they were capable of. This is why it can be extremely powerful for a tentative writer to hear their words read well, their writing sounding much more impressive than they thought it was. 

I have often begun a focus on descriptive writing by projecting a picture of a door in a wall leading to a garden. Beyond the lesson activity of thinking through what each sense might experience if we were standing looking through that door, the image represents something even more profound: beauty awaits us and the door is open for us to pass through the wall that held us back and discover what lies beyond. Our job, as educators seeking to inspire creativity, is to shine a light on the beauty and to open the door to access it and enable them to grow their own flowers in the garden. 

Author: Sam Lenton

Head of English at Wycombe Abbey School,UK

Sam Lenton is Head of English at Wycombe Abbey School in High Wycombe, England. He has taught in a wide range of academic environments in his seventeen years as an English teacher, including a large comprehensive secondary school, a state sixth form college and two independent boarding schools for girls. He is passionate about nurturing a love of literary discussion and advocates admiring the beauty of a writer’s craft, shamelessly sharing his obsession with Virginia Woolf, in particular. As a self-published author of two novels and the poetry collection The poor player’, released in December 2021. Sam is a keen writer familiar with the challenges of composing in a range of styles and forms. He is experienced in training others to be creative and has run scriptwriting workshops and adult learning sessions in creative writing alongside his classroom teaching. Sam is confident that there is joy to be found in engaging and encouraging the most reluctant readers and writers to explore their own ideas and discover what they are capable of.

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