The Incredible Shrinking Musician Meets the Furiously Angry Horses in Tweed Pants (or What My Students Taught Me About Essay Composition Through Creative Writing)

Over the years, I’ve worked with many writers and young readers. Each of them had their own set of life experiences, writing and reading habits, and personal motivations. But they also were each in a different place with their communication skills, especially writing-wise. Some were able to fill entire notebooks with their thoughts. Others used occasional silence to underscore a lurking but pointed wit. Some knew exactly where to start, but struggled toward their conclusions; while still others took time to get going. But once they were rolling… look out!


As a teacher, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. In fact, the diversity of writers is one reason that Writing with Design forgoes dividing young people into grade levels. Instead, it aims to meet them where they’re at. As their educational guide, you’re probably also as filled with excitement as I am when you’re able to take them further than they realized they could go from that starting point.


But what happens when they’re the ones teaching us? Many of those writers I’ve known have loved creative writing or storytelling, yet initially struggled with development in essay composition. Yet, several of them, all on their own, helped me to see that their creative writing was a gateway-- their gateway-- into building other communication skills… once they showed me the connection, of course. Today, I wanted to share with you what they’ve taught me.


World-building as a means of teaching continuity

Students are often exposed to movies, stories, and video games involving entire fictional worlds. Because of this exposure, they often intuitively understand that their own creative writing shouldn’t create unneeded contradictions. For example, if our musician in the title is suddenly vaporized into dust by a space alien, he can’t very well re-materialized, at least not without a compelling reason. Essay writing is similar in that it has its own rhyme and reason, but should follow an internal logic with compelling reasons for any contradictions.


Your tone in writing can set the pace for a response  

Likewise, students often recognize early on that their own creative writing (and the creative writing of others) can take on certain tones, depending on what it’s trying to accomplish. Probably nothing has made me happier than seeing a student realize that their essays don’t have to be all bone-dry, factual information pieces. Instead, just like with a scary story or a comedy film, they have the ability to choose their tone as their essay develops. This also gives them insight into the possible responses they can create in their audience. Which leads us to our next point...


Making a larger point

I once had a young writer ask me what the point was of reading Siddhartha by Hesse. Of course, I gave him the typical response about literature and writing. Not until I introduced him to Orwell’s 1984 and Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide did he come back to me to say he “got it.” When I asked what it was he “got,” he explained to me matter-of-factly that when he read these books, it opened his eyes. He wanted to write stories like these, where people fought against oppression or laughed at the absurdity of it all. But he went further than this: he carried this thinking over to his essays and filled them with research and thoughts on everything from capital punishment to politics in the Middle East. What he “got” was a critical insight: all writing is used to make a larger point about what impacts our lives and what’s important to us.


Multiple perspectives are part of the communication process

Your students can also use creative writing to better understand the act of interpretation. While essay composition might not be as subjective as poetry, the connection still exists. For example, in our article title, do you picture the musician playing the saxophone or the trombone? Maybe both? While essay writing might rely more on factual information and logical arguments, the way these can be interpreted can still give students an amazing perspective on the communication process. Will their teacher understand the reference they make to a new technology? Will all the other students in their class see the possible consequences of their argument unless they go into detail?


Using metaphors to reach a broader audience

Because of the nature of creative writing , it often gives students unrestricted access to dabbling and playing with metaphors. Why can’t they use this developing skill in their essay writing too? I’ve found that many writers I’ve worked with are more than willing to when you tell them it’s okay. In fact, I now explain to them that using metaphors in their essay composition can help broaden their audience, while helping to explain complex points. They usually love that this is a tool they can carry over from their creative writing.


Creating curiosity with a hook  

So what about those angry horses in tweed pants and our incredible shrinking musician? Let’s try out our metaphor skills on this last one, shall we?

Artists, including our musician, know when to maximize curiosity and when to minimize it by satisfying it. Our bizarre title likely drew you into to this article. Isn’t essay writing the same, we keep reading what we’re curious about? And those furiously angry horses… can’t wrangling ideas seem as wild and unyielding to the young mind sometimes? Yet, when they begin to see theses ideas for what they are, your students can give each one the path they intend it to follow, tweed pants or not. As my students have shown me time-and-time-again, creative writing and essay composition are just as much about the art as the science. And really, who’s to say something just as wacky and creative won’t hook your students?

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K. with WWDComment