The Zen of the Writing Workshop: Unraveling the Koans


“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.”

William Faulkner

My first experience of a writing workshop was in college in the early eighties, long before the practice became intrinsic in elementary classrooms across America. I think this was probably a lucky break. I had a chance to participate in a writing workshop when the idea was still exploratory, unshaped and dynamic. I can still remember the poet-professor hopping on a desk, ripping the clock off the wall, citing Ginsberg while he literally smashed time. I perked up. I paid attention. This was a learning environment unlike any other I’d ever been a part of. That year I learned how to listen critically, how to respond with my heart and my mind; I also learned to hone my writing instincts, work productively within a community, and take risks. I got to write about what I wanted to write about, there was someone to listen, and I wasn’t being compared to anybody else. There’s nothing quite like it.

Donald Murray built the forms for much of what we call the writing workshop in elementary school today.  He was an inspiration to Donald Graves at the University of New Hampshire who later became a fundamental mentor to Lucy Calkins. A Pulitzer prizewinning writer himself, Murray attempted to break down the architecture of writing in a way that kept the imaginative pulse of the experience while giving it an integral structure, stomping out a path for writers-yet-to-be.

In an essay titled “Write Before Writing,” Murray challenges teachers to confront one of the more difficult aspects of teaching writing, albeit that it’s not a tidy, predictable formulaic process and that writers, real writers, are quirky. Murray cuts to the chase:

We command our students to write and grow frustrated when our “bad” students hesitate, stare out the window, dawdle over blank paper, give up and say, “I can’t write,” while the “good” students smugly pass their papers in before the end of the period.

When publishing writers visit such classrooms, however, they are astonished at students who can write on command, ejaculating correct little essays without thought, for writers have to write before writing.

The writers were the students who dawdled, stared out windows, and, more often than we like to admit, didn’t do well in English—or in school.

Donald M. Murray, “Write Before Writing,” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 29, No. 4. (Dec., 1978), pp. 375-381.

Murray studied thousands of writers in his lifetime; he was thoroughly fascinated by the variant hues of the human writing process. One pillar that Murray continuously stands on in his work is the need for writers to pre-write, an act that often manifests itself as daydreaming or procrastination. In this “delay,” Murray believed that writers are seeking time to let the seed of an idea fully develop roots. In the end, Murray believes that only one act is necessary in order to become a writer…writing. Here is a glimpse of Murray’s spin on the essential components of writing and how teachers can cultivate environments in which writers thrive:

This process of discovery through language we call writing can be introduced to your classroom as soon as you have a very simple understanding of that process, and as soon as you accept the full implications of teaching process, not product.

The writing process itself can be divided into three stages: pre-writing, writing, and rewriting. The amount of time a writer spends in each stage depends on his personality, his work habits, his maturity as a craftsman, and the challenge of what he is trying to say. It is not a rigid lock-step process, but most writers most of the time pass through these three stages.

Prewriting is everything that takes place before the first draft. Prewriting usually takes about 85 percent of the writer’s time. It includes the awareness of his world from which his subject is born. In prewriting, the writer focuses on that subject, spots an audience,chooses a form which may carry his subject to his audience. Pre-writing may include research and daydreaming, note-making and outlining, title-writing and lead-writing.

Writing is the act of producing a first draft. It is the fastest part of the process, and the most frightening, for it is a commitment. When you complete a draft you know how much, and how little, you know. And the writing of this first draft—rough, searching, unfinished—may take as little as one percent of the writer’s time.

Rewriting is reconsideration of subject, form, and audience. It is researching, rethinking, redesigning, rewriting—and finally, line-by-line editing, the demanding, satisfying process of making each word right. It may take many times the hours required for a first draft, perhaps the remaining 14 percent of the time the writer spends on the project.

How do you motivate your student to pass through this process, perhaps even pass through it again and again on the same piece of writing?

First by shutting up. When you are talking he isn’t writing. And you don’t learn a process by talking about it, but by doing it. Next by placing the opportunity for discovery in your student’s hands. When you give him an assignment you tell him what to say and how to say it, and thereby cheat your student of the opportunity to learn the process of discovery we call writing.

To be a teacher of a process such as this takes qualities too few of us have, but which most of us can develop. We have to be quiet, to listen, to respond. We are not the initiator or the motivator; we are the reader, the recipient.

(From Don Murray, The Essential Don Murray, Lessons from America’s Greatest Writing Teacher: Heinemann Publishing)

The practice of the writing workshop continually requires that the teacher adopt a beginner’s mind; the Zen of the workshop is that it always unveils puzzles and delivers very few answers. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been on your game. The other day I had a writing workshop that was going off the rails quicker than I could cool the engines and slam on the brakes. Three girls doing pirouettes, (of course it was a part of their script); a few walking meditators, notebooks in hand; several conversation clutches imported directly from Starbucks; when I scanned the room I just had the sense that none of these writers were in a writing zone. I resisted the urge to flex my teaching muscles but the next day my mini-lesson started with this question: “What are we learning in the writing workshop?” I wanted to touch on the basics, realign the structure. One student raised her hand and launched, “We’re learning how to use our intuition.” I pushed her thinking. She continued, “We’re learning how to trust ourselves as writers. We’re starting to know when we have an idea that’ll grow and one that won’t.” Whoa, I wasn’t expecting this conversation. Another student popped in, “Yeah, we’re getting writing muscles.” Yet another, “We’re working on our writing instincts.” These were third graders; this was a conversation we’d never had. I wanted them to feed me words I could relax into like “Writers generate ideas, use plans, draft, edit, revise…” They were into much deeper territory. I was freaking out about the writing; they were being writers. Don Murray would’ve chuckled.

How to weave Murray’s insights into your next writing workshop? Here’s the marrow:

  1. Make time every day for kids to write and let them drive their topics
  2. Keep your mini-lesson tight and focus on a key component of the process
  3. Don’t present a mini-lesson as if it is the only way a writer can work, try to create a menu of possibilities
  4. Shut-up and let the kids write
  5. When you observe a behavior in the writing workshop that appears unproductive, approach it with wonder and heart, try to view it as part of a writer’s struggle and not a reflection of your own classroom management style
  6. Trust your instincts


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