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Writing and Reading as Conversation: A Small Epiphany

Posted on May 17, 2007 by

Many years ago, when I was learning about the teaching of writing, I read that if you want to teach children to write and read as if it matters then what you need to do is provide opportunities in which words do matter. One suggestion for doing this was to exchange letters with children—to write them letters and notes—and then to invite them to write back.

I found this idea of an exchange of letters coming back to me several years ago, at a time when I was teaching writing at Recovery House, a residence for men and women recovering from addiction. Each person in the group wrote every week, and, in addition to sharing their work in the group, I always collected the pages at the end of the evening and took them home with me. And at some point during the week I would make a cup of coffee, and read through their pages, and as I read through them I would often imagine their pages as letters that they had sent out into the world in the hope of some response. I drank my coffee and I wrote responses.

Not terribly lengthy responses. Often my responses were brief. I wrote each response in the form of a letter, addressing the person by name, and trying to relate as clearly as possible what in their pages had spoken to me. I tried to write less as if I were a teacher evaluating the writing and more as if I were a person in the world, writing back. Often I got snagged by old habits—responding like a teacher—but sometimes I was able to write in a clearer, less teacherly, way, and I suspect now that those plainer comments were the ones that had a greater likelihood of getting through—of being received on the other side.

I still have a milk crate filled with manila folders from that time.
Here’s one of the letters that I found:

Rocky really does sound like a great dog—if a little scary (for other people, that is). I can see the connection between you getting him and beginning addiction, both at a time when you were moving into manhood. It seems like there’s such a bittersweet quality to your memories about him. I can see how much you cared about him. Keep writing—Diane.

Not infrequently, once I began writing these letters, I would get letters back. The stories and poems written in the workshop were themselves a kind of letter, but often, too, I got actual letters addressed to me.

Dear Diane, This is just to let you know that as far as class goes, I’m not quite ready this week. I seem to have run out of time, so please forgive me. I really like your class a lot and look forward to it too. I’ve learned a lot about myself in your class and find that now I enjoy writing. Who would have thought? hmm, hmm, hmm? Thanks for being there for us, for me and those who stick and stay. I like to think that you’re there for the ones who hang in there, and not run, the ones like me. I’ll be ready next week and please forgive me. Ok? Ok! Love, Walt. P.S. I do have something to read in class.

Granted, sometimes I got letters back because the penalty for not writing in that group (not my idea) was washing dishes, and, if all else failed, writing a letter to me about not writing counted. And true, they may have sometimes given me what I wanted to hear. (What teacher doesn’t want to hear that students look forward to her class?) And true, however much I tried, I was never able to be as non-teacherly in my letters as they were. Which perhaps was appropriate after all—I was the teacher. But, granting all of this, still I like to think that some sort of exchange was happening—messages getting through, back and forth between teacher and students, and then the whole nexus of connections among the students as each week people read aloud and then conversation would emerge between each of the readings.

It was while teaching at Recovery House that I had a kind of epiphany. I began to realize that all the writing workshops I’d been a part of—starting with the first workshops I took in Columbia, Missouri, and then workshops I was a part of in Durham, North Carolina, and then in Bethesda, Maryland, at the writing center there, and then all the workshops in Fairfax, Virginia while I was in the writing program there, and then the peer writing groups after, so much of the time we operated under the premise that these workshops and writing groups were preparing us for what we ultimately wanted—namely publication. But at Recovery House, in that setting, exchanging letters, and participating in that group which grew into such an active and attentive group, at Recovery House it occurred to me that some large part of what we had longed for in all those previous workshops—the longing to be heard—the longing to use writing to enter into a larger conversation—the longing to use writing to enter into a larger conversation about things that tend not to emerge in ordinary conversation—this was often happening right under our noses and there in the group itself.

When groups were at their best—and of course they were not always at their best—but when they were, an exchange would occur—something terribly simple and terribly powerful. A new story being heard. And then some sort of response occurring—a comment occurring in that moment, or another story written in response, or a poem, or a fragment of something. And the conversation continuing. This kind of conversation was more rare, I think, than any of us realized at the time, and I have only been able to fully appreciate some of its value in hindsight.