December 3, 2015

Reflections On Writing From One Of Our Own

Friends' grad and guest blogger Rebecca Shepard
I am so excited to feature this guest blogger.

Friends’ School community, please allow me to introduce you to Rebecca Shepard.  Becca is a Friends’ School graduate from 2003.  She is a critically acclaimed author who wrote this piece just for us, readers of Among Friends’.

Becca is a writer, reader, and editor who now lives in New York City. She has published fiction, poetry, and non-fiction online and in various literary magazines, as well as translations of Greek and Latin. You can learn more about her at her website. Becca has been featured in, Westword, the Daily Camera and the New York Times. According to the Times, “her book, Naked Came the Post-Postmodernist, already has the New York Times talking.”

Becca will be coming to our school on January 22nd to present a gathering and to conduct a writers’ workshop with our 3rd, 4th & 5th graders.

These are Becca’s reflections on writing and Friends’ School:

In second grade, my parents were worried about me. There was no denying that I had a passion for writing; I filled notebook after notebook with stories. The problem was that the words were written all in capitals, with no spaces between them, and no punctuation. If that wasn’t hard enough to decipher—think tombstones from classical Greece, where paleographers have to distinguish where words are broken without the help of spaces or punctuation, and with the added challenge of erosion—very few of the words I used were spelled correctly. In third grade, I wrote my first novel, a fantasy story that dragged its audience (my adoring, if not slightly concerned family members) through a world as fantastical in its engineering as in its phonetically-spelled structure.

Fifteen years later, I graduated Sarah Lawrence College with a degree in Classics, Philosophy, and Writing, have published fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and translations, and spend a large chunk of every day studying the grammatical structures of Ancient Greek and Latin, Romance languages, and German. But my interest in writing, and indeed, my interest in grammar, stems from my second-grade notebooks; from the encouragement of creativity and imagination at Friends' School, and from the use of the freewriting technique.
The freewriting technique gained traction in the 20th century, beginning with Dorothea Brande’s book Becoming a Writer in 1934, and carried through the philosophy of the beat writers to select modern education philosophies. The technique is simple: set a timer for somewhere between five to fifteen minutes, put your pen on the paper, start writing, and don’t stop until the timer goes off. It doesn’t matter what you write—it could be the same word over and over again, it could be a journal entry, it could be the beginnings of a poem. Most importantly, what you write doesn’t have to be grammatically correct, logical, or ‘good’ by any external criteria. The philosophy behind freewriting is equally straightforward: warm up your mind, let go of your ego, and start breaking down the walls of anxiety, insecurity, and apathy that lead to writer’s block and procrastination. Though freewriting, as an exercise of creativity, openness, and acceptance is hard to imagine as a negative thing, it is rarely implemented in education. Its use in Friends' School’s educational philosophy therefore underscores just how special a place the school is in its approach to learning and the dialogue between learning and selfhood.

Becca, during her Friends' School years
Critics of freewriting claim that the lack of attention to grammar and sentence structure can be harmful to a child’s learning development; that it is critical to know how to write before one begins to write. To this argument, I have a very simple counter-argument: how many things in life do we know how to do before we do them? Even in the most pragmatic of activities theory eventually succumbs to experience; there is a world of difference between reading about gardening and getting dirt under your nails caring for a flower bed, going to every talk on parenting by every specialist under the sun and reacting to your child’s first word, first disappointment, first love. And these are examples in the material world! When it comes to the world of art and articulation, the gray-toned world of bringing a part of me somehow closer to you, how could we dream of drawing the boundaries before the attempt has even begun?

Don’t get me wrong—I love grammar. I find grammar intrinsically poetic. But the way I was taught to write at Friends’ gave me the opportunity to approach grammar on my own time, on my own terms. Friends’ taught me to enjoy writing, to love writing, so that it was only a logical and consequential step for me to pursue my passion for language as far as I could go—to its ancient roots in Latin and Greek. It took me until my junior year in college before I fully dove into the world of conditional sentence structure, noun declensions, and dactylic hexameter, but I arrived at the study of the Classics not despite my lack of grounding in traditional grammatical training, but because I had been writing ferociously for years, not held back by fear of inadequacy or failure.

In an age ruled by technology, efficiency, and speed, the parents and teachers who step back and truly think through how they can best prepare their children and students must see that real education (from the Latin ex+ducare, meaning ‘to lead out’) does not come from any method that places how and what before why. Friends’ School does not simply teach its students—it instills in them a lifelong love, pleasure, and motivation to learn, express themselves, and most importantly, to take the first step before even considering the possibility of fearing it. 

1 comment:

dbramble said...

Thank you Rebecca Shepard! You've taken a complicated topic--free writing and choice for young writers--and made it not only easy to understand, but easy to support and celebrate as well. And, just as you've always done since the second grade, you wrote synergistically with head, hand, and heart. I'm thrilled that you'll be teaching the next wave of writers at Friends' School in January. You'll see me there, I'll be the one sitting in the front row and taking notes. All the best, Diane Bramble