I’ve been taking a painting class for several years now. I didn’t think I’d like oil painting, but the process is surprisingly similar to writing and I’m drawn to it for that reason. A writer has to put boundaries around a story, to figure out where it begins and ends. The painter has to do the same thing to frame a composition. A writer starts with an outline or an idea or just a few words that sound good together, and a painter also starts by making a loose sketch that gets refined later. There’s a lot of revision in both arts. Sometimes, you have to throw the whole thing out and start all over again. Some ideas work better than others, but what matters most is that you do show up and keep doing it.
Here’s what else surprised me about painting: It can be taught. I’m not dismissing the importance of talent, but the fact is that hard work and solid, proven techniques can get you pretty far. Anyone can learn to paint or draw competently, and anyone can learn to write clearly -- maybe even eloquently.
But where do writing teachers come from? In 1974, a UC Berkeley education professor named Jim Grey was making his rounds of local high schools, visiting the classrooms of beginning teachers. It occurred to him that experienced and successful teachers would themselves be the best “teachers of teachers.” He began putting together a plan for a workshop that would bring together the very best teachers of writing, so that they could share their techniques and pass them on to other teachers.
Why did he focus on writing? Students use their writing skills across all disciplines -- not just in English class, but also in history, sociology and even in science. If teachers themselves could learn to be better writers, they would understand the challenges that their students face. Grey began with this core belief: Teachers need to know how to teach writing, but first they need to know how to write.
That was the beginning of the Bay Area Writing Project. Pretty soon, the idea began to spread. Now the National Writing Project oversees workshops and trainings at 200 sites around the country. Since 1977, Humboldt State University has participated through the Redwood Writing Project. Bob Sizoo, the co-director for writing programs, has watched the program grow over the last few decades. There are conferences and academies for young writers in grades 4 through 9, special in-service workshops and teaching institutes for educators and conferences that are designed to bring together academics and classroom teachers.
“We wanted to bridge that gap between the classroom and the ivory tower,” Sizoo said. “Teachers can come in and share what’s working best for them in the classroom, and university professors can identify the theories and studies to back that up.” The project also tries to bring together teachers at all levels, from kindergarten through university. “Teaching writing is a recursive process,” he said. “The same principles come up year after year. I know a kindergarten teacher who uses peer response groups that allow kids to give feedback on the other kids’ work. It’s very simple at that age -- the kids might draw picture with a little story. The other kids have a chance to say what they liked about the story or what else they wanted to know when the story was finished. But in some ways, it’s the same process that university professors use when they teach graduate level writing workshops.”
This year, the Redwood Writing Project has decided to try something new. They’re holding a week-long writing retreat on the Mattole River that will be open not just to fellows of the Redwood Writing Project and other teachers, but also to anyone in the community who is interested in devoting a week to their writing practice. They also invited local writers to come teach workshops and share their experiences. Jim Dodge, Roy Parvin and Joan Dunning will each teach a class, as will Natasha Wing, Dick Stull and Craig Riordan. I’ll be teaching a workshop one day, and Jeff DeMark will be there performing his show “Writing My Way Out Of Adolescence.”
The workshop runs from Sunday, Aug. 5, through Friday, Aug. 10, at Camp Mattole. The fee for the week is $650, which includes meals and shared lodging at the camp’s rustic cabins. Each participant also gets a package of books by some of the writers who are teaching throughout the week. The schedule is flexible enough that you can take whatever time you need to write, and they’ve got a system in place so that participants can get together in small groups and get feedback from each other when they’re ready for it. Professional development units or university credits are available for people who need them. Space is limited, but right now there are about 10 slots left. To get complete details, search for Mattole Writers’ Retreat at humboldt.edu, or call Bob at 826-3972. Maybe I’ll see you there.