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Carlina Duan: Writing as fuel

By Carlina Duan, Columnist
Published July 23, 2014

In the center of the classroom, a boy sat with his legs splayed over the couch, clutching a deck of cards. As he slapped a card down on the table, his eyes flickered upwards toward the front of the room, where I stood. Stacks of paper thundered across my desk. The card-players cackled.

Two hours later, I watched my middle school students hunker over poems. Pink eraser grits fluttered, brows crinkled, pencils tripped across white paper. Somebody burped. Another scuffed his shoe against linoleum. “I can’t do this,” one student said, pushing back his chair.

“Yeah,” I said, tapping my hand to his page. “You can.”

This week, I’m teaching writing workshops centered on Asian Pacific Islander American identities to young Chinese-American campers in Michigan. When I was introduced as “The Writing Teacher” to my students, a collective groan swam through the air. One boy put his head down on the desk. “Writing!” he sighed in dismay. “I hate writing.” During my first workshop, my students counted down the minutes until I left. “See you tomorrow,” I said, as I packed up my bag. “Tomorrow!?” they wailed. “We have to write tomorrow, too?”

When I say I’m here to teach writing workshops, I often get similar reactions from my students, regardless of age: disappointment, dismay, resentment.

Writing is hard. It’s hard to teach, but it’s even harder when students don’t clearly understand what the point of writing anything is. While the value of writing is lauded repeatedly in schools and in the workforce, literary education is oftentimes formulaic, rather than hands-on and experimental. We tend to ingest writing as a blurry, unquantifiable task, rather than a form of play and relevance.

My students like stories. They like hearing about slabs of pineapple pizza, thunderstorms, monkey kings. Today, I had my students create myths or legends that spoke to their Chinese-American experiences. They wrote about moon cakes that induced laser vision. They wrote about Voldemort performing a traditional Chinese fan dance. They wrote about superhero dumplings, kitchen sink monsters and peach trees. When my students toss their hands up, I tell them they do, in fact, know how to write. So much of writing is just a process of swimming through the brain’s jungles and wires. Oftentimes, writing is just the end product of a long process of thinking. Writing untangles our grits of thought and makes them tangible. What makes it all so difficult is that in order to write, one must trust the brain to do its own funky, imperfect dance.

When I teach writing workshops, the constant challenge is in re-discovering why reading and writing matter in their ability to reshape ground and pummel through doors. I remind my students that poetry, prose and all forms of writing can forge visual and verbal connections. Writing acts as both a translation and a re-vision for our worlds. And above all, the process of writing gives us access to play.

People don’t understand why I spend so many of my waking hours living with poetry and prose. “Where’s the value in that?” they ask. Others seem to place poetry on the side: “That’s a great hobby, but… you should really find a steadier source of income.” I shrug my shoulders. My LinkedIn profile features a hilarious assortment of past jobs, most of which relate to storytelling. I’m proud. I celebrate. I ask questions, record shit, swing, chase, write.

Recently, Filipino-American poet Patrick Rosal published a piece in the New York Times explaining why we should pay attention to poetry as necessity.

“Part of the problem is our assessment of poetry is about awards, publications and appointments. Not enough is about how everyday people are moved by poems,” Rosal wrote. “Truth is, they are hungry for it — especially when it’s written, read, performed and listened to with the whole body.”

Poetry, as Rosal described it, becomes a bodily experience, and one that we ache for. Perhaps this “hunger” is what we need young people to learn in schools. Writing poetry, prose or essays isn’t dull. Writing isn’t unconquerable. Being a writer offers you the opportunity to also be a firefighter, a lawyer, a doctor, a gardener, a juggler. Writers are never only writers. They are collage-makers, pulling from a mash-up of fields and experiences, weaving together, playing with language to construct.

“I write poems,” I told my eye doctor last week, when he asked what I aimed to do post-graduation. “Wow,” he said, jamming an eye drop into my eye, “That’s certainly … mysterious.” I blinked, and contact solution dripped menacingly down my face.

The more we intake the writing process as mystery, the less likely we are to access it. Perhaps it’s naïve, but I’m convinced that writing offers a type of fuel for efficient problem-solving. Writing can move us through the world with vigor and curiosity. I tell my students not to think of themselves as “good” or “bad” writers. They all have stories. They all have wrists and throats and mouths. They are joyful, and small. Some wear oversized soccer jerseys to class and others eat green peppers at lunch, while still others marvel over silver paperclips. My students are learning how to seize joy through learning how to experiment with language. Through writing, they’re learning how to ask questions. They’re learning how to hatch rage. It’s important, complicated, messy work. It’s work that counts.

Carlina Duan can be reached at linaduan@umich.edu.