Unschooling in the Art of Writing

This is another chapter in my series of looks back at my own development and how I learned most of the skills that are critical to my life today outside of any school or other formal education environment. Based on the sum total of this reassessment, I have become a strong advocate for informal learning, what 1970s radical educator John Holt coined as “unschooling”.

Wikipedia defines “unschooling” as representing…

A range of educational philosophies and practices centered on allowing children to learn through their natural life experiences, including play, game play, household responsibilities, work experience, and social interaction, rather than through a more traditional school curriculum. There are some who find it controversial. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities, often initiated by the children themselves, facilitated by the adults. Unschooling differs from conventional schooling principally in the thesis that standard curricula and conventional grading methods, as well as other features of traditional schooling, are counterproductive to the goal of maximizing the education of each child.

Though the scope of the definition applies the term to learning by young people, I think it is applicable for lifelong learning as well. And this essay is about my own lifelong learning over five decades, mostly outside of any formal education setting, developing the skills and inclination I currently have as a writer.

Late Bloomer

It was about three years ago that I fell in love with the process of writing, finally developed the discipline to write on a regular basis, and started to really define myself as a writer. For the previous five decades of my life I had aspired in one way or another to be a writer. But though I always enjoyed having written something, that circumstance was limited because I was so uncomfortable with the writing process getting there.

Looking back and reexamining things, I see at least four key impediments to my emergence as a writer.

The first is my nature as a creative, right-brained, non-linear thinker. My mind tends to think in several directions at once and be most engaged when I’m receiving a variety and high volume of sensory inputs – words, pictures, sounds, and more. A conversation that I engage in may have a profound influence on me, but I generally can’t recall it as a series of statements, but more as a holistic gestalt that moved me. I do not process time well (it being a linear sequential construct), and when my mind is fully engaged, I tend to lose complete track of time. At my paid job I would be mostly dysfunctional without my email/calendar/to-do list software, since my mind tends to hyper focus on what is currently filling my senses, forgetting what’s next and what’s after that.

My non-linear mind is actually great for much of the work I do, allowing me to think creatively and outside the box, effectively design or analyze systems, facilitate meetings between people, and create visual presentations that weave together text, graphics, formatting, color and page design. But that same mind is not so suited to writing essays, which involves creating long sequences of words and paragraphs that build arguments step by step and one thing at a time. I am constantly challenged to try to torque my multi-directional thinking into a single linear stream of words, sentences and paragraphs. It often feels as impossible as singing a three-part harmony with one voice.

Second was the technology available to me. Before we had computers and word-processors, the act of writing on paper was excruciating, since my penmanship has always been bad, and the sheet of paper with my words (particularly if I had to cross out or re-sequence) looks visually unpleasant to my eye. Using a typewriter helped with the visual look of the words, but once I had seen the words I typed on the page I would invariably want to rearrange them (not the forte of a typewriter). I remember writing college papers, the ugly painful handwritten part followed by the mind-numbing typing of pages over and over until I gave up on making everything sequence just right.

I remember it was 1981 when I first started using an IBM PC and the Wordstar word-processing software. The ability to cut and paste and always see clean paragraphs was transformational. I was able to essentially “build” a page of text rather than have to “write” it from start to finish.

Third is developing the bad habit with school writing assignments of writing for the grade. Since most of what I wrote for school was not something I would have chosen to write on my own, I quickly learned to write very mechanically so that I met all the requirements in the teacher’s explicit or implicit rubric. Style and voice, which are so much a part of real writing, were generally not worth the effort in academic writing assignments (particularly for me with the writing process so painful).

Finally there’s the fundamental existential problem of writing when you were a young person before the age of the Internet… You generally had no audience for what you wrote! Unless you somehow managed to write for some sort of a youth periodical or organization, or have some other person to regularly correspond with, who’s going to read what you put down on paper?

Schoolwork was particularly frustrating in this regard. From elementary school through college I wrote over a hundred pointless essays, difficult for my non-linear mind to construct (given the technology) and with no compensatory upside other than hopefully getting a good grade from a teacher who had to read and grade 30 or more similar essays. I never wrote anything in school that was published and read and commented on by other students (except for perhaps the occasional exercise of another student in your class reading and critiquing your work, usually based on some teacher supplied rubric).

So given those obstacles here is the tale of how I finally overcame them.

Narratives & Unfinished Blue-Books

Even though they did not have a lot of money on my dad’s college English professor salary, my mom and dad were savvy enough parents to see that I loved imagination play (I think most kids do). So they were able to provide me with a set of basic toys that facilitated such play, including plastic (three-inch) soldiers (WWII & U.S. Civil War), Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys and wonderful plastic dinosaurs purchased from our college town’s natural history museum.

Equally important were two venues for this play, the maybe 600 square foot unfinished slab basement and a backyard augmented with a dirt pile (frequently refreshed by my dad getting trash cans full of dirt from a nearby gravel pit). Both venues were “configurable” of sorts. I was allowed to use chalk to mark up the basement floor (because there was a drain in the center and the floor could be hosed down whenever cleanup was needed), and so I would mark it up with land-masses with roads and sea areas in between. Since it was the basement where not much else happened (except for one corner where my dad had his desk and books and another corner where my mom did the laundry) I could pretty much leave my toys set up for days at end with whatever imagination scenario I was playing. Also the dirt pile in the backyard could be built up into mountains, rivers, roads, forts and other exotic terrain, which again did not have to be constantly cleaned up.

As detailed in my piece “Plastic Dinosaurs and the Tragedy of Jinx Island”, starting when I was seven or eight, my younger brother and I created some pretty involved play scenarios and resulting story narratives. Borrowing ideas from our favorite sci-fi/fantasy movies of the time, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mysterious Island and The Lost World, we used the chalked out floor, Civil War soldiers, Lincoln Logs, plastic dinosaurs, shoe and larger boxes (cobbled into ships and submarines with scissors, tape and cellophane for windows) to develop our own stories. This included giving names, traits and back-stories to many of the individual plastic soldiers. There was also of course Captain Nemo himself, with all the moral ambiguities of his antiwar extremism.

At this age I also had become a great reader of comic books, including the well known DC and Marvel superheros. But also the less known Classics comics, literary classics like The Time Machine, Lord Jim and Ivanhoe rendered in comic book form. Between the comics and our own narrative play, my fired imagination started imagining other stories of my own.

To that end, my dad, being an English professor, always seemed to have an abundance of those small format “blue books” that were handed out to students to write test answers in. With their blue paper covers and 8 or 16 ruled white pages, they were perfect media for my own stories, and my dad was happy to give me as many as I could use. The format I adopted was to draw a picture from the story on the top half of each page and then write a sentence or two on the bottom half describing the action in the picture. (It was not unlike the format of the Fun with Dick and Jane books they gave us at school to help us learn to read.)

I actually completed a handful of these blue-book stories, filling all the pages with pictures and words and putting the book title (and an appropriate picture) on the blue cover. But there were far more that were started and never completed. Usually I would create the cover and draw a series of pictures on some of the pages, but only write in the accompanying sentences for one or two of the pages before my non-linear mind got stuck or lost interest in trying to tell this particular story.

As I got into my preteen years, the stories I tried to write (still on my dad’s blue-books for the most part) got longer and more involved and I filled the pages with sentences instead of pictures. But still most were never completed, as my imagination moved off in a different direction and I did not have the drive or discipline (or audience actually) to stick to it to completion.

During this time period I also had to write reports for school, which were generally problematic for me. I always imagined the wonderful finished products I was going to create, but would invariably get bogged down in the actual writing and put it off until the last minute. Then I would complain about my situation to my dad, who would offer to “help type” my report, and in the process end up writing half of it himself!

By middle school my mom and dad had divorced and my dad had moved out of the house and was no longer available to be my “ghost writer”, so I was finally forced to complete writing assignments on my own. I slogged through them myself but it was not pretty. With each new assignment I imagined the great work I was going to craft, but then reality would hit and I would painfully fight my way through and do the minimum needed to somehow complete the assignment.

Lord of the Flies

During my high school years I was in a unique mostly youth-run theater group (not part of the school program), Junior Light Opera. Since we were encouraged to take on every aspect of mounting theatrical productions, I ended up suggesting that we do William Golding’s dystopian novel, Lord of the Flies (which I think I had to read in a high school English class), as a play. Since there was no existing adaptation I was somehow cajoled into agreeing to write one for the stage. It was my same old pattern; a grand idea of what I wanted to have written, but in denial of the many long hours I would have to spend painfully engaged in the writing process.

It is pretty amazing in retrospect that I actually completed the project. I think it happened because there was an audience, and therefor so much of my ego at stake, my peers in our theater company being so excited at the prospect of doing this dark story on the stage that I would be damned if I was going to fail at such an anticipated high profile task.

Luckily it was my junior year of high school and I had taken an eight-week typing class the previous summer. My mom had bought a neat little J.C. Penney portable electric typewriter (to be shared between her and me). Though I started out writing the script longhand and retyping, I quickly realized that that approach was taking too long, and I was able to shortcut things and write directly to the typewriter from a marked up copy of the book. Still I had to endure more than a hundred hours at the typewriter, including having to make those awful decisions not to fix perhaps an awkward wording because it would involve retyping an entire page.

As I have detailed in a piece I wrote about the experience, the script was completed and the show was staged and was in all ways memorable. The drama critic for Ann Arbor’s local paper did a writeup on me, the fifteen-year-old who adapted this controversial novel to the stage. After the performances he reviewed it, calling my script “flawed but suspenseful”. Really it was mostly Golding’s creation with just a little of my own imagination trying to make it work as a series of staged scenes, but still feeling like a feather in my cap with my theater group comrades duly impressed.

Community Organizer

I completed college with a degree in communications in 1978, which included a basic article writing journalism class and several large research papers for other classes successfully rendered but still mostly excruciating to research, write and type. Again the frustration of spending hours writing pieces that had no audience except for the teacher or TA who read and graded it. In my journalism class the stories we wrote were actually analyzed and graded by a computer program (we keyed in our stories onto punch cards and submitted them to the mainframe computer), so not sure if any human beings read them!

I then moved to Los Angeles. Though my plan had been to work in the TV/Film business, that did not pan out for me, and by a conjunction of circumstances, I ended up instead volunteering and then being hired as an organizer for the National Organization for Women and their campaign to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

My work for NOW included recruiting and coordinating volunteers in various efforts to raise money for the campaign, which I write about in more detail in my piece “Community Organizer”. Toward that end I had to write instructions and phone scripts for those volunteers. We had a local newsletter and I wrote a number of articles for it as well. I also ended up writing most of the letters to our members and other supporters pitching them to contribute money and their volunteer time to the effort. What made this writing more compelling for me was that there was actually an audience that was depending on the quality of my prose to either understand their volunteer task or be inspired to write a check for the cause.

Writing fundraising letters in particular was a task like nothing I had done before. It is a certain niche of prose to write an advocacy piece that tries to concisely and effectively pitch people to part with their money and their time. My only training for the task was to read similar pieces written by my NOW mentors (Toni Carabillo, Eleanor Smeal and others) and some feedback on my letter drafts from Toni. I learned the game pretty well, building the short paragraphs around evocative statements, but without overdoing it. Deciding which words, phrases or sentences to highlight (either with boldface, underlining or both). The feedback from the audience was the checks coming back in the mail, along with comments from my mentor Toni and my fellow staff members and volunteers.

Lucky for me it was the early 1980s, the personal computer revolution had begun, and I was able to do my writing on a computer keyboard using Wordstar and later Word Perfect. As I indicated earlier, cut and paste was transformational for me as a writer, allowing my non-linear mind to more “build” a page of prose than to just “write” it, if that makes any sense to you! If I had had to rely on typewriters I don’t think I could have done the various letters and instruction I had to constantly create within the tight time frames involved.

Looking back, I think it was the first time I started to sort of enjoy the writing process, not just enjoying having written something! And for the record, I got no formal writing instruction of any kind.

Coffee & Technical Writing

Back to college I went in the early 1980s to get a degree in something practical that I could parlay into a good paying job (rather than the $800 a month for 60 hours a week working for NOW). I got my degree in computer science, so other than programming code, there was very little writing involved in my coursework. I did take a technical writing class which taught me some good principles for this type of writing which would come to dominate the next two decades of my life. I boil good technical writing down to three basic rules which can be a challenge to weave together – be both precise and concise while making the page look nice.

But also learning to write structured computer code actually contributed significantly to my skill as a technical writer. Good coding involved writing separate detailed functions that are then called by a top-level control routine. Clear concise function names and an English language like syntax (Along with actual written comments) makes programs easier to read, understand and maintain. Also everything needs to be defined before it can be used.

My initial jobs out of college designing and writing computer applications were great ones for my creative non-linear mind. But as I transitioned to more corporate jobs maintaining existing computer applications, I moved away from programming and towards what is known as “systems analysis”, which I used to joke involved interfacing between computer programmers and human beings. A significant part of my work involved writing, either describing the business requirements so the programmers could define a solution or documenting how the programmers’ solution worked so it could be used and maintained.

People who work in IT are notorious for not being good at writing documentation… I turned out to be the exception. Surprisingly, my non-linear mind was well suited to this sort of technical writing. Most of my previous attempts at writing were narrative in structure, either fictional stories or essays requiring a linear presentation of the events or arguments.

But technical documents are generally not read from beginning to end, but like dictionaries or encyclopedias are searched for the needed information and then only that needed detail is read. So the linear flow of the prose is not so important. What is important is the logical structure of the document, starting with a high level overview facilitating the reader through “drilling down” to successive levels of elaboration of detail. This kind of successive levels of detail was akin to what I had learned about structured computer programming.

I found that I could “build” good technical documents as a hierarchy rather than a series of pages. Imagine a tree with a trunk (the high level overview), branches (the next level of breaking out the various components called out in the overview), and finally the leaves (the most detailed level of information). I learned to construct each page using formatting tools like headings, lists and tables rather than simply writing a series of paragraphs; then hang all the pages together like a web rather than a single thread. By adopting this approach, I found that I could leverage rather than fight with my non-linear mind and build extensive documents quickly and even enjoy the process.

Another discovery during this period was that caffeine (as a stimulant) helped temporarily “linearize” my mind (like I imagine Ritalin or Adderall works) to some degree making the writing process easier. Having previously avoided caffeinated coffee in favor of decaf, I would begin each day with a strong cup or two until my mind was buzzing and somehow more easily focused on a writing task. I’d have another cup around lunchtime but would then have to lay off the stuff or risk not being able to get to sleep that night.

During two decades of this technical writing in a corporate business environment I recall only taking a single one-day technical writing class. The class actually provided some useful information, but mainly I used its curriculum along with curriculum from a more extensive class my colleague had taken, to craft my own beginning technical writing classes that I offered to maybe 100 of my IT colleagues in one of my corporate jobs. Mostly, the skills I developed I learned from stealing ideas and formats from other technical documents I thought were well constructed, or getting feedback from my colleagues reading my documents on what was most effective, plus just inventing formats that I thought were the most intuitive for a reader to navigate.

Emails & Online Forums

During the 1990s when I was developing my technical writing chops at work, my partner Sally and I were starting to participate in early forms of social networking with our computer. We had a subscription to Prodigy (one of the online precursors to AOL and other Internet portals) and were discovering its online forums. We both got fairly involved in Prodigy’s women’s issues forum and had some extensive exchanges of email messages with other forum participants around the country. Both of us being passionate feminists, we were drawn to write ever longer posts describing our views, laying out our arguments, and responding to others.

As I noted earlier, the Internet (and other online networks like Prodigy’s) revolutionized “amateur” writing, giving many thousands (now millions) of people like my partner Sally and I at least a small group of people that would read and respond to what we wrote. In my opinion, nothing inspires you to write and improve the quality of that writing like having some sort of an audience, particularly when your views are challenged by and need to be defended before other people who might disagree with you.

These sorts of email messages, being ephemeral communications, are generally more quickly written without being overly concerned with spelling, grammar and structure. Some people think that this has led to a degrading of people’s capability to write good prose. But I think just the opposite. Informal emails have liberated many of us to “just write” and not worry about writing well, and as any writer will tell you, the more you write the better you get.

Having our appetites’ whet by the Prodigy forums, in the early 2000s Sally and I got involved with an Internet forum sponsored by the Alternative Education Resource Organization. We had joined the organization looking for alternatives for our son Eric, who was crashing and burning in conventional school. In the forum, perhaps several dozen people around the country (including Sally and I) engaged in extensive discussions and arguments about philosophies and methodologies for informal learning and more formal education. (A larger circle of people read the forums.) Though we all supported AERO’s mission, there was enough disagreement between the forum participants to generate some extensive exchanges including some many-paragraph posts.

Over the course of several years in the early 2000s I probably wrote over 100 posts trying (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) to explain my positions and frame convincing arguments. An argument not so well presented would be called to task by a responder and spur me on to reply with better prose. Some of the posts I wrote were quite extensive and were rising to the level of being nearly complete essays in themselves. Again, with the informality of email, I learned to respond quickly and channel my thoughts into paragraphs without overthinking my prose, but improving it with every iteration.

It is interesting that during the same time her mom and I were exchanging written posts on the AERO forum, our daughter Emma was spending many hundreds of hours writing forum posts to fellow participants in an online role-playing game community. Her posts involved making up the back story and her part of the collective narrative around her fictional “in game” characters. (See my piece “The Adventures of an Unschooler on the Virtual High Seas”) for more details.) But writing is writing, and as the axiom goes, the more you write the better you get. Today Emma at age 23 has just completed the second draft of a young-adult science-fiction novel and has also written a couple excellent essays posted on the Daily KOS blog site (under the nickname “chicgeek”).

Blogging & Daily KOS

In 2008 my son Eric, who was aware of my extensive posting on the AERO forum, suggested that I write my own blog. He had the technology savvy to set everything up for me, including the hosting server and WordPress blog template. My first piece, “Welcome to Lefty Parent”, was posted on November 25 of that year, and I have gone on to write nearly 400 pieces (including this one) since then. Though I only get the occasional comment on my blog, through various feedback I estimate that I have maybe 50 to 100 regular readers and my work is mostly well thought of by that audience.

One of my comrades on the AERO forum suggested that I post my pieces on Daily KOS, and early in 2009 I started to do so. The beauty of Daily KOS as a venue for my writing is that, though the size of my audience is probably similar to my own blog, I get a lot more comments, which either validate or call to task the prose I am writing, ever inspiring me to improve my craft.

Going Forward: Living to Write

Though I still have my moments of writer’s block, it seems I “live to write” these days, and try to carve out two or three “writing days” each week, and strive to post at least one piece each week. Nothing is feeling more fulfilling to me than sitting in front of my little netbook computer writing my latest piece. Though I still love to have written something, I’m loving the writing process just as much, particularly when the thoughts are flowing mostly unhindered out of my brain and onto the LCD page.

I wish at times that I could “write to live” as well, maybe earn a paycheck writing books, articles or commentaries. But then I don’t think I would want some editor telling me what to write and not to write. So maybe, at least for now, I’m better off as a free unpaid, unbought spirit. That’s another discussion!

Looking Back: Observations

As I wrote at the top of this piece, it’s been five long decades getting here, and looking back at my developmental arc I make the following observations…

1. From a young age, I have always had a strong urge to tell what I felt were important stories. As a kid the stories were mostly fictional, since I had little experience of my own in the real world. I got my ideas from books (including comics) I read and movies and TV shows I saw (depicting both fictional and real life events). Half a century later I have plenty of my own experience, along with witness of the human stories around me, plus extensive historical reading of those stories from the past.

2. Direct instruction by a teacher/mentor played a significant role in my developing the mechanics of writing. Perhaps an oversimplification, but learning the basic mechanics of writing sentences in elementary school, good paragraphs in middle school, and cohesive essays in high school. Interestingly, my own kids did not go to high school but somehow learned to write cohesive essays as well.

3. While school helped me develop the mechanics of writing, I think it hindered my development of motivation, style and voice as a writer. First of all other people were telling me what I had to write about (I perhaps could choose which country, but it had to be a country). Second there were generally high stakes around a rubric and a grade. Third and probably most importantly, short of the teacher grading my paper, there was no real audience and no feedback. Writing was not (as it should be) about communicating something that you think is important to someone else who acknowledges that importance.

4. All the ways that school hindered my development as a writer, the Internet facilitated that development. The Internet with all its channels for informal written communication (including email, listservs, forums and social networking) gave me and millions of other people the opportunity to communicate electronically one to one, or more significantly, one to many or many to many. It was using those channels to have an audience that finally put the development of my essay writing skills on the fast track. (I think schools would do well to totally embrace electronic communication and give every student that wants one their own workstation and their own email and social networking accounts, and let students and adult staff do much of their interacting through informal written communication electronically.)

5. All told, I would say that the development of my writing skills has been about 5% formal instruction and assignments and 95% informal written communication.

6. If I had it to do over again, I would have spent a lot less time in school where I generally only had one person at any point that I had to communicate effectively with (my teacher) and spent more time in situations that required my effective communication with my peers, or even a broader circle of adults.

2 replies on “Unschooling in the Art of Writing”

  1. Thanks for sharing this with us Cooper. I learn a great deal through my own writing and have found my journaling to be a huge part of my daily anchor. I’m also starting a new business and writing a lot of guest blogs. Looking for guest blogging opportunities is what brought me to your site. While this time to write is a business investment as I try to get more visibility for parentcoaching.org, I am finding the introspection into my work and ideals to be quite helpful and instructive.

    I’d like to guest blog for you. I homeschool in an unschooling fashion. I recently moved to an ecovillage in MO called Dancing Rabbit. I’m starting a new business and trusting my own ability to learn as I go. I think we have a lot of synergy and overlap of ideas and that an article by me would be of value to your site. And I love that it looks like I wouldn’t have to keep it short!

    Please let me know if you’re interested.

    All the best,

  2. Hey Coop,

    I finally got around to reading the story of your journey into writerhood and was particularly impressed with your ability to observe and describe your mind at work. It’s as though you are outside yourself and reporting on what you are seeing going on inside your head. A bit spooky but a great gift.


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