Guest post: Teaching Writing, or Expressing the Inexpressible

Guest post by Joseph Asphahani

I conducted perhaps the grandest of my life’s grand experiments about three weeks into the new school year in 2007. The students—a rowdy bunch of snot-nosed punks about a decade deep in the crumbling school system that was failing them. Me—an over-caffeinated snot-nosed punk about a day past my college graduation and the start of my first real job. The place—a rickety third-floor classroom in Chicago’s Gage Park High School. The task, which ultimately became the experiment, was to teach these kids how to write.

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Joseph Asphahani

Teaching Writing, or Expressing the Inexpressible

...Or, to be more specific, how to write creatively.

That’s right: High School Creative Writing Class. I’m willing to bet that at least two-thirds of you reading this at one point in time thought to yourselves that you liked reading cool stuff so much that maybe you’d take a turn at writing some of it yourself. That enthusiasm was my reaction, too, when the school programmer told me on my first day, “You got two sophomore American Lit, two freshman Survey Lit, oh and a freshman Creative Writing? That can’t be right…” But, yep, it was right.

And three weeks in, it was going utterly nowhere.

I’d started the class like I’d started all my classes that year (remember, this was my very first deer-in-the-headlights year as a teacher). I’d run a bunch of gettin’-ta-know-ya type icebreaker stuff. I’d taken a couple of paper airplanes to the back, all in good humor. I’d managed to keep my smile up somehow. But eventually I had to actually start teaching things: storytelling, how to write creatively.

One experiment involved a track by the Icelandic band Sigur Rós (who, if you don’t know, perform in a language known only to the band!). The idea was to close your eyes and listen to this entirely unfathomable song and let the sound and the singing kind of carry you away to the fog-veiled realm of your own imagination, and then the dawn would break, and the light would burn the fog away and reveal a story of some kind. I wrote an example, which I read enthusiastically after the track was over. And then, the educator’s most overused line: “And now you guys try!”

That early experiment yielded mixed results. Some of my students got into it. Some of them tried. Some others gave it a half-hearted attempt, but I could tell there was something in them we could work with. But the majority of the class blew it off. They vocalized—at that moment and throughout the coming weeks—their confusion as to how in the world they even wound up in this class.

I tried a couple more experiments: surveys, interest-inventories, and questionnaires, all designed to excavate their personal interests and assemble them into poetry. In the next unit, we read some really juicy short stories and imagined beyond the cliffhanger endings. There were more units after that, but nothing ever yielded truly positive results.

I fell into a bit of a dark place. I asked myself if I was part of the system that was failing them. I asked myself what they had really been asking me all along: what difference is creative writing going to make in my life?

The grandest of my life’s grand experiments was to justify the importance—the quintessential, nuclear-significance—of creative expression. To clarify how it helps. Like all teachers, it was something I felt in my soul, that doing what I was doing had purpose—that learning was really the only way out.

So one day, about three weeks into the school year, I gave it my best shot. I told them that there would come a day when they really needed to tell somebody something. When they would no longer be able to hold in whatever they were feeling, when they’d have to let it out. And at that time, I told them, simple words would fail them. I told them there are some things in this life that just cannot be expressed through literal language. There are ideas and feelings that can only be expressed through stories. And that there would come a day when they would have something important to say. And would they be ready to say it? Would they be capable of making it make a difference?

Looking back on it now, maybe I was suffering from a bit of that snot-nosed, fresh-out-of-college, over-caffeinated energy. Maybe it was all balderdash.

But when I was standing up there, the grandest of my life’s grand experiments yielded an unexpected result: a buzzing in my own head. It wasn’t just them I’d been challenged to convince. It was me, too. It was my own existence I was justifying.

It was this epiphany that defined me from that point on as a writer and storyteller. There were—there still are—things I want to say, things I have to say, about our world and who we really are inside, but simple words fail me. Dear reader, I worry every day that we may just be beasts, so I wrote The Animal in Man to ask what you think about it. I don’t think I would have been able to ask if I hadn’t at one moment in my life justified why writing anything really matters.

You probably want to know how the class turned out after that. Well, I honestly don’t remember the rest. We wrote some stories (this time without soundtracks). We filled out some more surveys and tried a few more poems. Actually, as I write this, I suddenly recall that the confounded school programmer finally figured out a fix for his mistake, shuttered the class, and rolled the roster into some other graduation requirement. That’s probably why I can’t remember: because it’s not a story with a real ending.

But maybe it ends right here, in writing this.

The purpose of the experiment was to see if I could teach some students how to write, to figure out how one could possibly accomplish such a thing. I know some of those snot-nosed freshmen, more than a decade later, and they’ve grown into fine adults who have gone on to use their imaginations to great effect in their careers. I’ve seen them tell their stories on social media, expressing the inexpressible, and I kind of like to think that maybe I played a part in showing them they could.

Joseph Asphahani is an avid video-gamer, effective high school teacher, and enthusiastic candidate for whatever sort of cybernetic limb enhancement your megacorp is planning for the inexorable dystopian future. When he’s not getting hopelessly lost in simulated worlds, he’s often dreaming up worlds of his own. The Animal in Man: Violent Mind is his first novel. He resides in Chicago with his wife and two children.