"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

Freewriting, Literacy, and the Key of E-flat

May 22nd, 2017 by

I am on a quest to fully understand and explain literacy—how it works, why some people do or don’t attain it, why it matters, what motives exist for it, how it changes us, what “it” is. You know. The usual questions, starting with the most basic (which aren’t really basic) and leading to greater and greater complexity. This quest will never be finished, in my lifetime, at least. It sort of feels like the quest to travel the speed of light based on our current understanding of energy and matter.

In my quest, I have sometimes drawn on metaphors. Aside from the analogy I just used concerning the speed of light, I have noticed that I like metaphors taken from music. This is probably because that is another field about which I enjoy an amateur’s understanding. This will, I hope, be forgiven. I promise not to sing. At least, I won’t sing here.

What We Avoid
This past week, I performed a Jewish Sabbath song called “Ka Ribbon” with my wife, who is a talented clarinetist. The problem I faced was transposing the piece so that the clarinet, tuned to B-flat, and the guitar, tuned to C, could play in the same tones and not in clashing keys. I could have simply tuned my guitar to B-flat, or used a capo on the first fret and played as though in D, one of the keys of choice for guitar players (the others are E, G, and A).

But I didn’t. I decided to transpose to the key of E-flat. And it was a mess at first. I eventually got passable at it, shifting from E-flat to a barred A-flat. But it is not a key I relish playing in when in front of an audience.

Again, I look for metaphors, and this experience led me to suspect that some of my students might feel about writing the way that amateurs like me think about the key of E-flat. We never do it. It isn’t comfortable.

It is one thing to hum melodies on a kazoo. It is another to learn to channel those same melodies through the structure of an instrument—that is, to shape the language we’ve been speaking all of our lives onto the page and then form sentences that seem to want to construct themselves in the language we were raised in, and not Standard Written English.

Add to this the rush to evaluation that is done in school. If we don’t write outside of the classroom, we don’t have time to play and experiment with different forms of language and different ways of saying things in class. Since writing and language are not the real subjects being taught in these classes—the real subjects seem to be a few absolute, rigid rules—most students really are not going to experiment.

They won’t have time to get used to what things feel like in E-flat.

Speaking of and for Resistant Writers
This is how the semester I just finished teaching mostly felt for the brilliant, challenged students I just had the blessed occasion to work alongside. Among my first-year writing students, the majority came from high schools where they had been given the impression that they were not good at writing, and so writing was a task they avoided at most costs. E-flat was not their thing. They entered my class this past January with resistance, dislike, and wariness. Most expected a repeat of high school.

So, early in term, I made my students freewrite in class. Every time we met, they got used to writing. I am not the only teacher who does this. At the end of the semester, I gave them a final assignment I will never be able to check on or give them a grade for. I told them to freewrite four or five times a week. Freewriting would be a way for them to interact daily with language and to get their bodies and minds working together, if only for ten minutes, to compose through language without fear of evaluation. I suggested that if they took those ten minutes to freewrite four or five times a week about anything at all, they would get more used to the act of writing and to their language. After all, writing is really a behavior.

“Let’s take the mystery out of it,” I said. “Think about something you don’t do very often. There’s a reason you don’t do it, and it is the same reason you aren’t doing it well. The reason could be behavioral as much as it is a mental block.”

I was telling them to play in E-flat.

As an addendum, I say this: As I imagine my students freewriting all summer, I have decided that I will try to play everything I know in E-flat. By the end of the summer, or perhaps before this, I will switch to B-flat. Just to get used to it. It is going to get easier to play along with my wife on her B-flat clarinet.

Posted in Uncategorized| 6 Comments


Comment by Jane Tawel on May 28, 2017 at 5:26 am

Great metaphor. Keep playing — with music and with words!

Comment by Tom on May 28, 2017 at 5:41 am

Thank you, Jane!

Comment by William Catling on May 30, 2017 at 8:34 pm

Yes I believe it something that takes getting used to. And the intense scrutiny and correction that comes through many writing classes does not validate those who struggle with it. I am sure you made a difference in some young people’s writing this past spring!!!!
Bravo and keep up the E-flat and B-flat exercises or write about what it takes to find a “personal” voice
as a writer in the midst of academic speak!

Comment by Tom on May 30, 2017 at 9:46 pm

Thank you, Bill. It is ongoing. It is the struggle, isn’t it?

Comment by Jacqueline Wallace on July 26, 2017 at 2:06 pm

Hello Tom, I found your post on Christian Blogger Exchange (if I’m remembering the name correctly). I attended the SoCal Christian writer’s conference last month, signed up for the blog but have yet to post on it. I read in your bio that you teach at APU. My husband, Randy Wallace, recently come on in the School of Business under Dr. Bob Roller. Anyway, I read your post on freewriting because I was curious about your title and thought I might get some insight for my own writing. I am a right-brain creative, as my editor says, and write without first outlining. She said to write and then outline from what I’ve written. But lately I’ve burned out, it seems, on writing. Having a hard time blogging. It also seems I an being pushed in the direction of keeping a journal, which I’ve never been successful at, but freewriting may tip me over the edge! You’ve encouraged me to simply “write” and get my thoughts/feelings on paper, and go from there. Thank you for this article. God’s blessings on your novel!

Comment by Tom on July 26, 2017 at 3:36 pm

Hi Jacqueline, I hope to see your work soon on the Christian Blogger Exchange. I think I get the feeling burn out from time to time as well, and everyone always offers tips. I found freewriting to be a help–journaling as well. I also know that the writing conferences I’ve attended in the past have often been discouraging. The writing road can be a long one. I found that the freewriting helped me to just get some writing done without judging it. Writing every day or every third day became a behavior. Anyway, thanks for reading. I hope to read your blog sometime soon. We need to support each other in this.

Reply to Post