Friday, September 27, 2013

The Personal Journey of Writing, Education, and the Knowledge of Self by Brandon Melendez, M.A.

Aristotle said “To know yourself is the beginning of all wisdom” and for me, there is no greater way to know one’s self, one’s innermost thoughts intimately, than through the discovery and building of the writing process. Taking those steps from inception all the way through to publishing is a way to take a piece of your soul and make it accessible through written text. Whether the ultimate goal is to keep the ideas as a personal record or to share them with your fellow man the process is nonetheless an ordeal the provides you with new insights into yourself and your place in the world.  Without knowledge of the self, you can never begin to understand others, or the scary and complicated sphere that we all share. It is for this reason that writing is fundamentally indispensible in an education that aims to “bring forth from within” the greatness and actuality of the self.  As trite as it may sound, it is more about the journey than the destination.

It is for this very reason that both education and writing are the centerpieces of my personal and professional development—because they are so very intertwined. There is no upper limit to what can be known, nor is there an upper limit to what can be written. The depths of one’s self and the bounds of one’s critical thinking and imagination have yet to be charted; however as an educator I know that the paths to taking the journey require some guidance. At least in getting started.  These paths are individual ones, no single path can serve the same writer, teacher, or student the same as the one before them, nor should they. There is not a single decent teacher in service that doesn’t want to see their students shine, find themselves, and surpass all expectations on their own paths. With creative liberty and intellectual curiosity, students will always find ways to broaden their horizons.

Education these days, however, has little to do with “bringing forth from within”. In fact in the tumultuous climate of public education today, teachers—the very people who are determined to help students along on their journeys of self-discovery—are being thrown under the bus.  Along with an overabundance of assessments that seem to be designed to help no student, we also have a culture of taking what is primarily an art (teaching) and trying to force it into being a science—much the same way that we are taking an essential right (education) and trying to monetize it into a business. What is being lost in the process, in the vain attempt to take an individual and idiosyncratic transformation is the human soul, creativity, and quite literally fun.

It is the process of writing—finding your big idea and building it from the ground up that tests your ability to know yourself. It isn’t standardized.  It’s personal. You can offer students some tools in the process, but in the end it’s in their hands. What ideas can they hold to the scrutiny of development? The ideas that students—writers in general—discard “on second thought” are just as important as the ones that they develop into blockbuster works. As an educator I realize that the only thing they need is our guidance and personal attention to their ideas. Even other writers working in writer’s groups are just looking for an encouraging word, or a slightly harsh truth to refocus; but that is only true if the goal is personal, not forced, assigned, or made compulsory.

In the Elementary classroom I have found that introducing of something as fundamental to the writing process as an outline has become a radical teaching practice. Outlines, of course, are not suggested by Caulkins, Fountas, or Pinnel and are nowhere to be found on the Common Core…so their instruction and implementation has gone from gospel to apocryphal.  Adherence to a rubric and the conventions of unproven thoughts on standardized “best practices” are more important in the educational world of “data-for-the-sake-of-data” than true personal expression and exploration. What is being lost is the sense of self and the sense of purpose…the very same internal compasses that are set by developing your voice and sharpening your mind in highly personal writing. 

I have found students whose imaginations are stifled, whose creative processes are commercialized, marketed, and standardized, and whose concept of the English Language and its descriptive deployment is foreign, strange, and irrelevant. After all, they grew up in a system where red pens are banned, spelling errors are called “invented spelling” and are corrected by osmosis, and who have been trained to call adjectives “strong words” as if the word was nebulous or burdensome. The process of writing for them is mechanical and unimportant because it has not been presented as wonderful (or it has but ingenuously, as read from the script of a boxed curriculum). 

Furthermore, what is being lost is the ability to develop their voice and explore writing. As teachers teaching writing we are afflicted with that abominable “Teacher’s College Workshop” language of “Good Writers Do This” and “Great Readers Always Remember to…” and “Authors Always Add These Kinds of Words”, when the truth is great writers do very little of it. I assure you that Twain, Vonnegut, Shakespeare, or even Sapphire weren’t secretly engaging in a 45 second turn-and-talk. Neither was Plato. I can guarantee you, in addition, that they didn’t call adjectives strong words. When a child describes a cloud as “cottony” it is poetic, and a use of descriptive language…but in the end the use of an adjective. The student that can call a cloud “cotton” is probably capable of understanding what the word adjective means.

Worse yet are the tools being eschewed in this world of “rigor”—spelling, penmanship, grammar, and at the end of the day: originality. The repercussions of their absence can be felt in my college classrooms where I switch honorifics from “Mister” to “Professor” but where my ultimate goal is the same: “to bring forth from within”. In the college classroom I have noticed the same reluctance to creative writing as I found in elementary students. The same invented spelling. The same inconsistent grammar. The same lack of passion. The students are, at that point in their writing careers, so married to the idea of academic writing that the world of creative writing seems like walking the tightrope without a net. Academic writing often has several safety nets that allow you to keep a distance from your process. Phrases like “the student practitioner” or “the observer notes” or “it was found that” are by design impersonal. Of course these are perfectly acceptable and don’t hinder critical thinking. They may however distance ownership, personalization, and certainly don’t allow clouds to be cottony.

While in neither venue are all students afflicted by disinterest, the number of them affected is staggering and the solution is so very simple.

I don’t mean the “authenticity” that the educrats throw around—most of those theorists and researchers have been out of a classroom so long they’ve forgotten what bells are for. I mean authenticity in enthusiasm, authenticity in interest, and authenticity in developing the students. The students are not, if you’ll recall, products from an assembly line. Each of them deserves the opportunity and is owed the right to build their character, and conceive their own voice. When students turn a phrase—I swell. When students need help I don’t tell them how, I ask them “what?”

What is it you’re trying to say?
What is the most important part of your piece?
What can you do to make your reader understand?
What will this piece do for you?
In my college classroom I discuss “world building” and I tell students that every story you can think of, and every character you invent is a facet of yourself. Every work of art you create is a piece of you viewed through a prism, and made to appear as if it has its own life, when indeed, the author and the work are inextricably, inexorably linked. I tell my elementary students that writing is creating; writing is the ability to use words like bricks and build ideas and worlds—a way to explore your brightest dreams, exorcise your nightmares, express your feelings, and demand your desires (though admittedly in more kid friendly terms).

As an author, and a blogger—a writer—myself, and the Editor-in-Chief of a website and publishing house I have a responsibility that isn’t at all foreign from my charge as a teacher. My responsibility there is to the integrity of my own writers’ voices—and my own—in order to properly engage and challenge an audience. The same disgust for stifled and stale minds I bring to the classroom is the same zeal for self-determination and self-directedness that I offer my freelancers, staffers, editors, and contracted authors at Maglomaniac and Eat Your Serial Press. I know that their process—the journeys that they’ve taken in writing—is purposeful, personal, and viscerally their own. Like in the workshop they only need that encouraging word, or that slightly harsh truth to set them in motion…but never a censor, and never someone looking to patronize them with buzzwords that reinvent preexisting concepts in order to sell them.

When I first helped start the publishing house a few years back, the whole idea of it was to be a platform for the unheard, a place where the unfound can be found. From that single foundational rule, the concept grew to the extent that we have over ten books in publishing or development and almost thirty bloggers, all working together to exchange ideas and thoughts. Some are serious, others whimsical, others yet sarcastic, optimistic, cynical. All going through their own processes and looking for a moment of your time to share their thoughts with you. All of them had teachers willing to listen, and ask them questions about their ideas, rather than put them through an intellectual meat grinder so that all their works were easily assessed on a rubric.

Writing and the exploration of self is a key human experience, and while it may not be everyone’s forte in our ever-more-electronic world is it fast becoming more important than ever. In a world where students are inundated with perpetually reinforced errors from text message or internet short hand, and educated in a world where red pens are more sinful than misspellings teachers have their work cut out for them in getting the quality out of students. However, the same talent, imagination, and potential is present in them as was in any other generation of talented writers. There are Capotes, Harpers, and Sallingers (watch out for them) in every school, everywhere. It is only a matter of dedicated and brave teachers to remember that at the end of the day, their presence is to help these gems shine themselves and not force them to be diamonds or rubies or emeralds unless that’s what they were when they walked in the door. Every writer’s process to that shine is personal, unique, and beautiful. It is our job solely to let them know how bright they are.

Brandon Melendez is a New York City Department of Education Elementary School Teacher and a Professor in the American Urban Studies Program at Metropolitan College of New York. He is the President and Editor-in-Cheif of Maglomaniac, Inc's brands Maglomaniac and Eat Your Serial Press; more information about Brandon, the Publishing house, and the Online Magazine can be found at

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