National Writing Project

NWP Speaks: 30 Years of Writing Project Voices

By: Pen Campbell, Eileen Simmons, Bob Pressnall, Kathleen O'Shaughnessy, Richard Louth, Jane Juska, Tina Humphrey, Dan Holt, Beth Hammett, John Dorroh, Alisa Daniel, Janis Cramer, Kathy Woods
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 9, No. 2
Date: 2004

Summary: In this five-part series celebrating NWP's 30 th anniversary, writing project teachers and site leaders share personal accounts of their writing project experiences. In this third installment, writers consider how the writing project has helped them become writers.

 

This year, the National Writing Project is celebrating its 30th anniversary. As part of the celebration, The Voice has tapped into the collective memory of the organization, asking folks who have been connected with the writing project in various and intimate ways to recount their experiences with the project. In this, the third of five parts to this feature, writers consider this question: How has the National Writing Project helped me become a writer?"

Into the Briar Patch
by Pen Campbell

I was 6 when I learned to read and write, and 45 when I grew up as a reader and a writer. I'd been a reader for a long time—a voracious, as-soon-as-I'm-done-with-this-page kind of reader. And I'd dreamed about being a writer for almost as long. I'd even worked at it some over the years, but something had always held me back. Without fully realizing it, all those years, I had believed in a myth that shackled me as a reader and as a writer—the myth of the right answer.

As a kid in class, listening to teachers analyze, scrutinize, and criticize literature, I was often left in the literary dust, in awe of their easy command of the text and its hidden essence—the right answers. If I couldn't even pick out the symbols in The Great Gatsby, how could I ever expect to write anything and figure out how to put all that stuff into it? Add to that the underlying belief of the day that good writers were born, not made, and in my mind, writing became the great undoable.

When I was 45, ready to resume my interrupted teaching career, I stumbled into a class taught by Third Coast Writing Project Director Ellen Brinkley: "Teaching Writing in the Secondary School." I felt like Brer Rabbit landing in the Briar Patch. The more I learned about the writing process, the more research I read, and the more I sorted my thoughts about writing onto the page, the more I began to chip my way out of that shell of the "right answer." I saw things differently. I began to read as a writer. It was like slipping on a pair of particularly focused glasses. I began to understand and believe in craft, in my ability to use it and to teach it.

That summer, I took part in the Third Coast Writing Project Summer Institute. All around me were other people passionate about the things I was passionate about—teaching, reading, writing—especially writing. This was the Briar Patch for sure, and it was good to be home.

About the Author Pen Campbell is a teacher-consultant with the Third Coast Writing Project, Michigan.

*****

Keep Writing
by Janis Cramer

I guess I knew I was a writer when, in the third grade, the dialogue bubbles I was creating for the cartoons I was drawing (instead of doing my class work) began to take up more space than the drawings themselves. By junior high I was writing love stories. One of my friends betrayed me, loaning one of my "books" to my eighth grade English teacher, who kept me after class one day. "You are a writer," she told me. "Keep it up."


In 1974, the Bay Area Writing Project, California, held the first-ever invitational summer institute. Here (right to left) William Brandt, who was one of the site's original co-directors, Folasde Oladele (Beverly Johnson), and James Pierce are in deep discussion.

Becoming a teacher, though, I did not keep it up. All the time I should have been writing I spent reading my students' writing. Going through the Oklahoma Writing Project Summer Institute in 1987 reminded me of how much I loved to write, and I began writing again for myself, for my peers, and also for my students.

For the first time, I became part of a community of writers. In 2002, the Oklahoma Writing Project joined with the Oklahoma State University Writing Project to host a professional writing retreat for our teacher-consultants. Art Peterson, a National Writing Project editor, joined 22 of us in the historical town of Guthrie, and we settled into some serious professional writing. We had a goal. We were there to create Write Angles III, a collection of articles about classroom practice to be published by the Oklahoma State Department of Education. But that wasn't the end of it. Several of our articles were published. Two of mine, in fact, were published in the NWP's publications The Quarterly and The Voice.

That success inspired me to apply for the NWP Professional Writing Retreat in 2002. What a joy it was to be able to sit in writing groups with other teachers like myself, sharing our words and our ideas, working face to face with NWP editors.

But writing in NWP is not only about creating polished pieces for publication. It's also about the sheer joy of writing. It was at my first writing marathon at the NWP Directors Retreat in 2002 that I came most strongly to feel this. Writing can be about the pleasure of observing the world, recording thoughts that need not ever be shared with anyone. And, because NWP is a network, good ideas spread. Since that first writing marathon experience, our site has sponsored several marathons, and several of our teacher-consultants met at a state lodge for a two-day writing marathon this winter.

Being a part of NWP has kept me writing. And having an audience for my writing has kept me involved in NWP.

About the Author Janis Cramer is the co-director of the Oklahoma Writing Project.

*****

I'm Not a Writer? Says Who?
by Alisa Daniel

"I'm not a writer." I hear that every summer from teachers on the first day of our summer institute. I greet this claim with a certain skepticism because I know that over the next weeks most of these folks will come to claim they, in fact, are writers. So I suppose there was some irony in my reaction when I was asked to respond to a request from the National Writing Project [publications staff] to detail how the project helped me become a writer; I caught myself thinking, "I'm not a writer."

Just like the institute participants, I was falling back on the stereotype: a writer is a special breed that does not include me. A writer is someone who sits behind a computer all day, eyes glued to the screen, fingers flying across the keyboard, churning out bestsellers.

But I know better and have known better since I began my journey as a writer while attending the summer institute at the Southwest Georgia Writing Project. I experienced the same emotions, frustrations, and successes as my students. I fell in love with words and how they fall into stories on the page.

I began teaching all day and coming home to write. I wrote stories of my childhood and of my children's childhoods. My goal was not to find a place on the New York Times best-seller list but to leave something behind for my grandchildren. My sister and I came up with the idea of writing about the same event from our youth. Needless to say our accounts did not always jibe, which led to our "dueling stories." Eventually we had to call a truce with our pens to save family relations.

My writing moved from personal stories of home to personal stories of my classroom. Here I began a new type of writing. My struggles and successes of teaching writing to first-graders turned into articles for NWP. I learned about writing for a different purpose. Instead of writing conversations with my sister, I had writing conversations with editors. I learned the meaning of reduce and clarify.

Had I not had the personal writing experiences of my first summer institute, I know I would never consider tackling articles and research papers. NWP gave me confidence to write and develop as a writer, but most importantly, NWP provided me with opportunities for writing. Because I write, I want my students to write. I want them to say, "I am a writer."

About the Author Alisa Daniel is the co-director for the Georgia Southern Writing Project.

*****

A Writer in Search of Community
by John Dorroh

The National Writing Project did not start me on the road to becoming a writer. Since I was able to hold a pencil, I have been writing.

I can recall reading my first picture books and saying, "I can do better than that." My first attempt at a novel occurred when I was about eight years old. It was modeled after the Hardy Boys series, taking place along the rocky coast of Maine, a long way from the Deep South town where I lived.

At a young age, I began writing letters to pen pals, a habit I have maintained to this day, communicating with dozens of folks all over the world on a regular basis.


The sharing of student work at National Writing Project summer institutes began in 1974 at the Bay Area Writing Project's first invitational summer institute.

A few years later, I was to be exposed to writing project thinking before I knew anything about NWP. Paul Ruffin, my high school English teacher, though not a writing project teacher, demanded that we learn to write by writing. This idea, which is at the core of writing project principles, was, at the time, an alien concept to me. I wrote like I never had before.

But while I was a writer, I had never been part of a community of writers. Then I met and fell in love with the people at the Mississippi State University Writing/Thinking Project. There, during the summer of 1989, I became "institutionalized." After the summer institute I took my custom-designed writing-in-science demonstration on the road and was encouraged to "share my stories" on paper.

And though I saw myself as a writer, I had not—since my early Hardy Boys emulations—thought much of being a published writer. Here again the writing project was crucial. "Send your rough drafts to The Quarterly," said Sherry Swain and Sandra Burkett, co-directors at the institute. "We'll help you."

And so I did. To my surprise, The Quarterly published my article called "Reflections on Expressive Writing in the Science Class" in the summer of 1993. Later that year the same article was selected as the recipient of the first annual Miriam Ylvisaker Award, given for the best article by a classroom teacher in that year. I was honored, shocked, and motivated to write even more.

NWP has always encouraged me from the first draft that I sent to them. Working with the editors there has taught me more about writing as a craft than anything else I have done as a writer and student of writing. I find myself sending manuscripts about all sorts of subjects to all sorts of magazines all over the country. Sometimes I even get paid!

I think that the most important realization for me through my association with NWP is this: No writer is—or should be—an island. Writers need community. And I need NWP.

About the Author John Dorroh is a traveling teacher-consultant for the Mississippi State University Writing/Thinking Project.

*****

Digging Deeper
by Beth Hammett

I have a recurring dream that symbolizes what the National Writing Project has done for me as a writer. I am peering over a riverbank into the shimmering icy-cold water; a reflection stares back. A light wind ripples the water, blurring the image. "Reach below the surface," echo the voices of my National Writing Project colleagues. "Dig deeper."

"Digging deeper" is a concept that I have been exposed to since my first summer institute at the University of Oklahoma in 1999. "I'm not good at poetry," I told my group members. "I've never written a poem worth reading." After three weeks of journaling, peer editing, and much frustration, I produced two pieces worthy of putting into our anthology. I had to "dig deeper," confronting my fears and thinking about life, its lessons, and the effect my words have on others.

Digging deeper meant confronting my past, and I did not know if I could do that. Facing reality can be an unpleasant task. But with the help of my NWP group members, writing became my therapy. I learned to make time stand still, to take a mental picture and capture the moment, to put words with images, and to create without fear. I learned it was okay to share my fears and emotions with others, to ask for help, and to make mistakes in my writings. I found myself among the words of my writing.

My second summer institute reinforced my beliefs that NWP is not just about teaching in the classroom; it is about being a lifelong learner. And it is about having a nonjudgmental support group that believes in you.

It was my third summer institute that forced me to look at life from a different perspective. We had songwriters, scriptwriters, and poets. Our participants represented diverse cultures whose work opened doors for me. Through their written pieces, I experienced the lives of others less fortunate than myself. I listened as stories of illness, heartbreak, and loss were read aloud. I came to appreciate my colleagues' lives through their writing, which in turn has made me a more accomplished writer.

I credit the National Writing Project with making me the writer I am. My colleagues have encouraged me to keep writing and rewriting, to publish my work, and to accept rejection because that, too, is part of the writing process. Without NWP, I would never have reached below the surface; I would never have dug deep.

About the Author Beth Hammett is a teacher-consultant with the Greater Houston Area Writing Project, Texas.

*****

Seeing Myself as a Writer
by Dan Holt

Audience, motivation, inspiration, support—all of these could be cited as ways in which the National Writing Project has helped me to become a writer. However, none of these factors explains the effect NWP has had on my writing or tells about the transformation I went through while a participant of the Third Coast Writing Project Summer Institute at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

I had written a great deal before I participated in the summer institute in 1994. I had published some poems, stories, and scores of newspaper articles. I had even worked for a while as a part-time sports reporter for my hometown daily. I wrote because I taught writing (creative writing, composition, and journalism), and I believed teachers should practice what they preach.

What the project did for me, however, was change me from a teacher who wrote to a writer who teaches. For the first time, I had a chance to dedicate an extended period of time to my own writing, to think of myself as a writer first and as a teacher second. Other writers listened to me read my work, and they read their work to me.

I wasn't writing to validate myself as a writing teacher or to develop an example to use in class. I was writing because it was just what I wanted to do, and the writing was important all by itself. The other participants didn't ask how I was going to use that poem in a class; they simply heard the poem and appreciated it or sometimes helped me to rewrite it. In other words, they saw me as a writer, and they helped me to see myself as a writer too.

About the Author Dan Holt is a co-director with the Third Coast Writing Project, Michigan.

*****

A Writer Surrounded by Other Writers
by Tina Humphrey

My first job out of college was as a middle school language arts teacher. I loved to teach and to work with students, but I was completely overwhelmed by the demands that my first career brought to my new "grown-up" life. Just as I had my entire life, I turned to my journal each night before I fell asleep, jotting down notes about the day; thoughts about students still lingering in my mind; and questions that I had about the job, the curriculum, and my new life as "Ms. Humphrey."

After my second year of teaching, I found a brochure for the Denver Writing Project in my mailbox at school. I felt an excitement build up inside of me as I looked at the pictures of adults sitting in circles under big trees with journals in their hands. I wanted to be a part of that.

Eventually I was. In that five-week institute, I found a new me. A writer surrounded by other writers. Welcomed into a group that made teaching and writing public. And safe. I found a group of teachers ready and willing to share with me their own stories and to listen to mine. I brought with me that summer the journal from teaching that I had kept for the previous two years, and in the course of those five weeks and with the help of that group, I left with the manuscript of a book. Amazing.

My book about my first few years of teaching was published a year later, and today I continue to write for publication and for myself. The writing project taught me that my words are valuable and showed me how to make those words public and how to collaborate with other teachers for the sake of our students.

About the Author Tina Humphrey is a teacher-consultant with the Denver Writing Project.

*****

Teaching Writing: Teaching That Lasts
by Jane Juska

The September after the Bay Area Writing Project Summer Institute (California), I ran, not walked, into my classroom, and for the next ten years, my kids and I wrote our way around the world. We wrote about our dads and our pets, about the people next door and far away, about our dreams and fears and worries and happinesses. We wrote about books; we wrote our way into books, through them and out; we wrote our own books. We read what we wrote to each other, and we applauded like crazy. I was flying, and I took my kids with me. It was a fine trip.


Mary Ann Smith, a participant in the first summer institute, conducts a teacher demonstration. Smith is now an NWP director.

When I say "we" wrote stuff, I mean "we." When they wrote, I wrote; what they wrote, I wrote. My classroom became a different place. No more complaints from the kids about having to do "all this work."

"If it's all that important," they would argue, "why don't you do it, too?" Now, I did.

No more assignments from me that echoed my academic past. No more five-paragraph essays with thesis statements. I didn't want to write those essays; I believed they were formulaic, that they constrained thinking, bound up ideas, insisted on form before and instead of content. We wrote essays, sure, but essays like real writers write essays, essays that, as Cynthia Ozick would tell us some years hence, were "...made of language and character and mood and temperament and pluck and chance." We wrote first drafts that were all over the place; we shared them; then we revised, we tightened, we made them correct, and it took us a long time.

"How much longer are we going to have to work on this essay?!" one mother complained. "We are sick of it!"

"Take early retirement," I wanted to say. "Let your son do his own work."

Then we put our writing into portfolios—yes, I did, too—and showed them around to each other and to parents and friends. And to me: I took those portfolios home and read them and, computer-driven by then, talked back to the writing and the writers I saw there. This was real teaching. It was teaching that made sense. It was teaching where everybody learned, not just the teacher. It was teaching that would last.

In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens gives us a character he names Jerry Cruncher. Jerry is a grave robber; Dickens calls him a Resurrection Man. It is not a difficult reach to call Jim Gray a Resurrection Man, the person who snatched me from a pit I saw no bottom to and dragged me kicking and screaming into a new life.

About the Author Jane Juska is a teacher-consultant with the Bay Area Writing Project, California.

*****

A New Respect for Writing
by Richard Louth

Before joining the National Writing Project, my writing life was different: a book on technical writing, quantitative research studies in Research in Teaching English and other such periodicals, a desk drawer full of half-finished stories and poems from another era, a general dislike of the essay form, no personal writing except with writing classes. After joining the writing project, my writing as well as my "writing life" changed dramatically. Three pivotal moments come to mind:

  • 1992: In my first summer institute, I met future co-director Melanie Plesh, who taught me to appreciate extemporaneous writing as a way of thinking and of seeing the world. She had filled about 50 journals, and her writing was beautiful, moving, and profound. In this first institute, she demonstrated her approach to writing, and ever since that summer, we continue to write in journals and share at the beginning of each institute day. Because of Melanie, writing has become a much less artificial, much more human activity for me.
  • 1996: During our first writing marathon at a summer institute, I saw the importance of taking writing out of the academic world and into the streets. Eating, drinking, walking, and talking in small groups became integral to the act of writing. The spirit of that marathon—remaining open to the unknown; trusting that the words will come; making writing a part of your life rather than separate from it; being willing to share fresh, sometimes dangerous thoughts with a small, intimate audience—stayed with me. It led to further marathons and also caused me to wander Paris alone for three weeks as a writer in 2000 and New Orleans for four months on my sabbatical in 2002. It led me to a new awareness that others may consider radical: that writing in the moment, for oneself, without publication as the goal, has its own validity and is in a sense the purest form of writing.
  • 2000: As a site director, participating fully as a member of a response group helped me produce some of my favorite pieces of writing. It stimulated me to write new fiction and poetry as well as essays. Like most new teacher-consultants, I approached my first response group with fear. Why did I get myself into this? Wouldn't I rather be photocopying handouts? I joined with hesitation, but now I depend on the response group each summer to keep me writing and to provide a helpful, friendly audience. I believe every director should participate in a response group and see it not as a burden but as an opportunity, or even as a reward. I look forward to response group more than anything else in the summer because I know it will keep me writing.

The writing project has changed my writing life by giving me a new subject (the writing project) and also by giving me new audiences and purposes. Writing with a summer institute, for a response group, to directors across the country, and in publications such as The Quarterly and The Voice has expanded my writing horizons, and I am grateful to NWP for providing these opportunities.

About the Author Richard Louth is the director of the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project.

*****

Finding the Right Words
by Kathleen O'Shaughnessy

I've been asked to tell the story of "how the National Writing Project helped me become a writer" in 300 words or less, and I find this idea preposterous—not the part about the National Writing Project helping me become a writer, but the 300 words part. Where I come from, our jokes exceed 300 words, and our stories are occasions for settling in with a cup of coffee or a beer (depending on the story). Like our bayous, our stories wind and meander; they teem with life. Brevity has been bred out of us. Luckily, I have a writing group who will tell me, with love and respect, how to find the right 300 words and when to shut up.

Cat will say, "Use real voices."

Seventeen of us leave sweethearts behind on Valentine's Day and drive through cold, gray rain for our site's 11th annual writing retreat. On the last night, my group sprawls with laptops across twin beds, polishing each other's poems for hours. Lisa's first: "stirred the heat and raised a fluid veil...a fluid dancing veil...read it again... stirring the heat...no, stirred...read it again... stirred the heat and raised from the flame a fluid, dancing veil...yes, that's it...read it again..."

Nettie will say, "Don't be distant from your audience."

Philip and I meet at the NWP Professional Writing Retreat and discover we're both working on pieces of writing that have us feeling out of our depth. By the end of the retreat, we have struck a deal to exchange drafts for feedback; we shake on it. Months later we have no more progress to report beyond a couple of rambling emails we've exchanged. Face-to-face at the annual meeting, we confess to procrastination, paralysis, and fear, but our deal is still on.

Ed will say, "Get to the point, kid."

NWP— locally and nationally— helps me write because writing to others or for others is hard, lonely work, but writing with others is pure joy.

About the Author Kathleen O'Shaughnessy is a co-director with the National Writing Project of Acadiana, Louisiana.

*****

Searching
by Bob Presnall

I knew it was going to hurt, even if the blade was no larger than the nub of a pen pushed back through the elephant grass of memory.

"Write about a time you searched," the Bay Area Writing Project instructor said.

It's not like I wanted to go there—back to that humid, pulsating jungle, where the air breathed you—or anywhere else, much less share it with my first writing group ever. A response was what I feared most—to the event, to the writing, to me—and yet, I craved it. Like the spark I'd searched for in the midst of darkness.

I wrote about a moment, my last mission, when we were being followed and I had halted the six-man team, retraced my steps alone, and parted the sea of grass with the edge of my bayonet. There, in a nest of sunlight, crouched a child in black pajamas, tracking us, a deer caught in the floodlights of war.

If I let him go, he would return to his family of Vietcong, and our position would be compromised. On the other hand it would be difficult to take prisoner an unarmed ten-year-old. The only other alternative was to kill him.

"Would you read your piece in the author's chair?" the instructor asked me the next day.

A month later I was a first-year teacher navigating a field of eighth-graders. They knew how to cry in public, too, I would soon discover. And bleed and laugh onto the page, amazingly, even on the first day of school. "Write about a time you searched," I prompted, wagging my pencil.

"Like a lost sock?" a student asked.

"Whatever's worth living for," I suggested. "Then we'll talk about it."

About the Author Bob Presnall is a teacher-consultant with the Bay Area Writing Project, California.

*****

A Teacher and a Writer
by Eileen Simmons

The National Writing Project didn't make me a writer. I already was one, but I didn't know it. Although I had been writing and publishing for nearly ten years when I joined the writing project, I identified myself as a teacher not a writer. By giving me time and space to write during NWP writing retreats, I began to realize that teaching and writing are two sides of the same coin, like reading and writing.

The first writing retreat I attended was in Boston, as part of NWP's Project Outreach. Everyone there was a teacher and a writer. For three days, NWP provided the space, time, and structure for writing. They gave us not only the physical space for writing but also the mental space, working with us wherever we were in the writing process. I left Boston with a manuscript on my laptop, a better understanding of professional writing, and the feeling that I, too, am a teacher and a writer.

I've attended many more writing retreats since Boston and from each one I've brought home at least one manuscript and many ideas, some of which have been published. I've learned to think like a writer, and I have more ideas than I'll ever be able to write about. But because I now call myself a teacher and a writer, I make sure that each day has a mini writing retreat built into it for me, a time when I can retreat to my home office and write, even just for a few minutes.

It's NWP's gift to me.

About the Author Eileen Simmons is a teacher-consultant with the Oklahoma State University Writing Project.

*****

On Becoming a Writer
by Kathy Woods

With three-fourths of my second-period students gone for another activity, I wrote nonstop while the remaining students did homework, interrupted only once by my lament: "I do not want to go to this writing retreat!"

I didn't want to go because my draft was not finished. But I had committed myself to the Oklahoma State Writing Project/Oklahoma Writing Project retreat precisely so I would get this article done, an article to be considered for the statewide publication Write Angles III. The retreat began that February 2002 evening in a hotel whose rooms boasted burgundy wallpaper of the large floral pattern fashionable one hundred years ago. Despite the nagging cramp of my unfinished piece of writing, exacerbated by years of a personal taunt upon which I had barely acted—"Perhaps I could be a writer"—I became inspired. Our guest for the weekend was National Writing Project Editor Art Peterson. His low-key style and humorous example of a submission in need of editing fueled my hope. I worked into the night finishing my article, NWP's publishing guidelines beside my laptop under the glow of a fringed lamp.

I resisted the temptation to apologize for my work when it was my turn to meet with Art. He made many helpful suggestions, but most exciting was his closing statement: "Send me a copy after you revise. We might be able to use it in The Quarterly." I was thrilled! I was affirmed! I even gained the courage to dig out of my trunk another piece I had brought, just in case.

Though I still write up until the deadline, I can now tell my young writers of my published articles in The Quarterly, The Voice, and Write Angles III. I am an author because of the writing project.

About the Author Kathy Woods is a teacher-consultant with the Oklahoma Writing Project.

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