The Writing Impulse

As a high school teacher and aspiring poet, I’m privy to a phenomenon I should find encouraging: in every class I teach, there are young writers and poets.  Over these five years, I could reliably expect that if I were to ask a class of, say, twenty-five if there were any poets or writers, at least one or two students would raise their hand as if they’d been waiting for the question.

More hands go up when I ask how many students have ever written for personal or creative reasons outside of class.  When I survey anonymously, it becomes obvious that a clear majority of students actively write, or have at one point.  Many of my colleagues’ experiences corroborate this pattern, and while our observations are largely anecdotal, they do beg an interesting question: how intrinsic to childhood and adolescence is written expression?

If we broaden our definition of “writing” beyond the literary, virtually all my students are writers.  Many blogging sites and social media platforms offer young people the opportunity, for better or worse, to chronicle their lives digitally.  The thoughts and images of their experience become fodder for social consumption and further expression.  If we include this type of expression in our understanding of writing, then writing becomes an act at once public, collaborative, and prolific.

While Facebook and Instagram are a far cry from The New Yorker, the idea that social media and literary creation share some of the same basic rules is not a new one.  Compare the composition of a poem to that of Tweet.  Both involve compactness, flexibility of syntax, distillation of language, and precision of diction.  Both draw heavily on the vernaculars, idioms, and speech patterns of their composers.  It makes sense, then, that many contemporary poets and writers are looking to these modes of expression for inspiration, even drawing on them for source material or adopting them as literary forms.

One of my professors claimed that people living in the digital age can expect to leave behind at least one or two books’ worth of combined electronic and written records of their existence by the end of their lives (assuming, of course, a certain level of privilege and access).  When I repeat this to my students it clicks: they are writers whether or not they intend to be.

So, yeah.  People, especially young people, are natural writers.  The next questions, then, are when and why do young people stop writing (at least creatively).  If we assume that writing is, at least to a degree, necessary as part of the expression of the formative crises of adolescence, it makes sense that it would be less useful to a person as he or she passes into and through adulthood.  Practicality wins in the end, no doubt.  Ultimately, most of us outgrow writing.

But is this inevitable?  Over the past few years, I’ve been wondering to what extent does the writing impulse die, and to what extent is it killed?  It’s easy to blame policy makers for educational reform initiatives like Common Core, which stipulates that seventy percent of required texts at the secondary level be nonfiction (literary and nonliterary).  Regarding poetry, we might also look at the schools of poetry which plunge without trepidation even further into the esoteric or the meta, the self-aggrandizing or the self-flagellating.

As an educator, though, I feel like we must take some responsibility.  Why do we let the teenagers who write poetry grow into the adults who won’t even read it?  It is ultimately incumbent upon us to help young people nurture and preserve the writing impulse.  Poetry can’t cure cancer.  It can, though, show us how to live through (or with) it, or remind us why we do.  It can articulate for us the most harrowing and sublime moments of our lives—moments we often believe, until we read, we experience alone.

A teacher told me when I was younger that writing “is the ‘we were here’ carved onto history.”  With pages that vast to scrawl across, I never wrote on a bathroom stall again.  Now, teachers, remember we have this power.  Let’s get our students to take the tips of their sharpies off the desk and write something more enduring.