Teaching my Picasso to write

At the parent-teacher conference, Jonathan's mother explained the cause of his struggles with my assignments: "He writes like Picasso. When he sees a page of text, it's like a canvas. It's not a sequence of words to him. It's more like a mosaic."

I thought: How will I get Picasso ready for expository writing next year in high school? Those English teachers want journalists, not artists.

I had been giving this student-Picasso low grades. My comments on his essays and paragraphs were not inspiring him to improve his sentence structure, awkward phrasing, illogical organization of ideas. Nor did he know how to make use of the model sentences and paragraphs I selected from famous writers, shared with the class to inspire unpedantic, fresh ideas. My lucid explanation of levels of generality and how to add descriptive details were lost on Jonathan. He kept turning in mosaics, which I kept reading, with difficulty. Poetry magnets would have been a good tool for him.

His dilemma made sense, once I imagined Pablo Picasso's approach to eighth-grade writing class. The artist might not recognize a starting and ending point to the page. Syntax might have more to do with texture or line than grammar. Several dimensions could be visible at once. Simultaneity, not sequence, would dominate, organized by a palette of words and shapes for sentences. There might be great rhythm and a flow of abstraction, but not logic. Picasso's book report would make a terrific book cover, but satisfying a requirement to summarize the plot could be a stretch.

But it would be a Picasso: full of vitality, unconventionality, verve ... art.

It was a difficult impasse for me and my student. Jonathan had terrific ideas, a deep understanding of words and the thoughts of real writers. He created arresting images, terrific patches of color and texture, but nothing approaching narrative or an organized flow of information or detail. He saw an essay or paragraph as a block, a three-dimensional object. In other words, it didn't make sense - according to the conventions for eighth-grade essayists.

Thank goodness. Helped by his mother's analogy, I could see that Jonathan's writing made perfect sense and my teaching approach did not! His writing had a cohesion of its own. I could begin to appreciate how little cohesion there was in my style of instruction for him, to whom I spoke a foreign tongue. He was working like Paul Klee, who said that drawing was "taking a line out for a walk."

He read like an artist too. In discussions, he oftentimes made imaginative leaps and found connections that eluded classmates. I found it ironic that he was so adept at understanding the creative content of other writers, yet so unstructured in his own work.

Observing him made a difference in how I viewed the process by which his peers were learning, or not learning. I started to understand more about one person's manner of organizing the meaning of language he was reading, through the language he was writing. I have come to believe that we are all either storytellers or picturemakers: We organize the world by narrative or by visual image.

Or both. John Steinbeck used to hang his paragraphs on clotheslines, like so many socks, moving them around until the writing assembled itself in a useful order. Author Anne Lamott ("Bird by Bird") writes: "I took my three-hundred page manuscript and began to lay it down on the floor, section by section. I put a two-page scene here, a 10-page passage there. I put these pages down in a path, from beginning to end, like a horizontal line of dominoes, or like a garden path made of tiles.... I walked up and down the path, moving batches of paper around, paper-clipping self-contained sections and scribbling notes to myself on how to shape or tighten or expand each section in whatever necessary way."

How do you solve a problem like Picasso? Imagine a class crisscrossed with clothesline, dominoed with paragraphs! Perhaps such laundering could unlock narrative for the picturemaker.

What if his powerful images and sensitivity to relationships in the story could be expressed in words and pictures in a manner which the reader could logically assemble? Wouldn't that accomplish the crux of writing? Lamott says, "an author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift.... I'm grateful for it the way I'm grateful for the ocean."

A student makes you notice, too. This young Picasso revealed much about the structure and order of teaching, and I'm grateful for it the way I'm grateful for the ocean. And I'm preparing for the day I have a student who writes like Jackson Pollock.

-- Todd Nelson, a teacher at the Maine Maritime Academy, lives in Castine, Maine

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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