William Makepeace Thackeray says of the British Museum, “It seems to me one cannot sit down in that place without a heart full of grateful reverence.” He was thankful for the “bountiful books” and “the truth I find there.”
I understand his attitude of grateful reverence. In a way, my bookcases are altars in reverence of the written word. In fact, my entire house is a worship place for writing. Almost every surface has one or several books on it. Add to that the computers for composing and the numerous notepads for generating ideas, and it is clear that I’m kind of crazy about books. My husband has even told our kids, “Mommy loves you more than she loves her books—and that’s a big deal.”
I can’t help it; the creative energy that goes into writing even the shortest poem or essay is a miracle to me. Writing can capture all of life—from the expression of the human condition, to the creation of new ideas, to the description of the minute details of life on earth. You can create the world with words.
Even in our anti-intellectual society, I think most people admire the ability to write. This ability is associated with intelligence and education and artistic accomplishment. It’s an easy jump to conclude that the converse is true of those who cannot write, which can explain why students who struggle with writing often feel a deep, personal dread of writing.
That means that much of the job of teaching writing is overcoming the insecurities and frustrations of students and awakening a sense of grateful reverence for the word and the world. The best way I have found to do that is to give students step-by-step guidance until they are able to work on their own and to ask them questions to draw out their insights and knowledge until they are confident in their own thinking. Students also gain confidence when they understand the conventions of good writing—the common structures of texts and techniques for communicating to their audience.
If students can achieve an attitude of grateful reverence for the world, they are on the path toward being able to describe and embrace it in writing. Observation and curiosity are the tools of writers–and for those who appreciate the world around them.