Once I attended a workshop for teachers sponsored by the theater department at U Penn in conjunction with Mary Zimmerman’s production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. One of the workshops was an improv group. The leader took us through a series of exercises designed to induce us to show emotion in actions, not words. My brother had recently died of cancer, and the memory of his death led me to a display of sorrow that my fellow participants judged as brilliant. But it wasn’t acting brilliance at all. It was me being me. That’s what writing is for me. It’s putting on paper what and who I am. For me, that’s enough, but for the reader, it may not be enough. Writing with the reader in mind is hard work—harder than teaching and harder than parenting even. Responding to a writer is equally hard. As responders to our students’ writing, we both encourage the writer and seek to move that writer forward. Responding can be a tightrope walk—a balancing act that we pray will not result in injury!
Being a writer and a responder to the writing of others is an act of faith. Like improvisational acting, it requires versatility, a willingness to listen, and empathy. Writing teachers who write (and should there be any other kind of writing teacher?) realize the process and the pitfalls. Recognize the moments of brilliance; gently nudge forward; appreciate the effort. Maybe the writer being responded to is like me—writing for herself, writing to make sense of her life. Sometimes that’s enough.