I’ve taught writing courses–freshmen composition, argumentative writing, teaching writing, business writing, technical writing, narrative writing, writing about literature, to every shape and size of college student for nearly twenty years:   ESL students who had been in the US less than a year college freshmen ready to quit, seniors ready to graduate, graduate students in biophysics, kinesology students, law students, social workers, even students on the U of M football team.  I’ve assigned rhetorical forms: a classical argument, a narrative, a business proposal, a story, a lab report, a legal rebuttal, a social services report.  I’ve never assigned topics.

If my students learned nothing else in my courses, I wanted them to learn that writing belonged to them, that the power and magic of writing is most deeply enmeshed with the ability to express thoughts about the topics about which people feel the most passion.  I wanted my students to see that writing is a form of expression that belonged to them, that they could possess so that they could go through their lives with this incredible craft at their disposal.  I would ask my students, “How many times have you written about topics that professors assigned?”  They would respond with groans and rolled eyes.  “How did you feel while you were writing those essays?”

Bored.

Well, I would tell them, “if you are bored writing in this class, I will be bored reading it.  So let’s not be bored.  Write about topics you care about!  Write about topics that infuriate you, or engage you, or fill you with joy, or stimulate you, but do not write about topics that bore you.”  Writing is one of the seven great arts; can you imagine a musician in a composition course being told to create a composition about Mozart?  An art student told to paint an interpretation of one of Kant’s theories?  A journalist told to write a story on yesterday’s news?  All of these types of artists are told to create according to the structure or form of the art itself.  So part of my reasoning is I wanted to teach in the way of all the great arts.

But more importantly, I wanted my students to create.  Creation is mysterious–we do not understand it.  I myself do not understand the process of how I am creating this essay right now.  All I know is that when I write, at a certain point, I am taken away from myself.  I am part of a greater consciousness than just the me that is separated from others by the barrier of my skin.  I am tapped into a great force, a great welling of creativity.  And all artists experience this, and scientists and mathematicians do too–read Einstein when he discusses the process by which he created his theories and formulas.  He did not understand it.  This is awesome.

I wanted my students to experience even a second of the awesome experience of creating, where the words flew faster than they could type, where they knew exactly what they were saying but could not believe they had written something that grand when they read it.  I wanted them to experience creation; I wanted them to be creators.  I wanted them to be artists.  I wanted them to experience the awesomeness of this process we do not understand, and I wanted them to feel reverence for it, and I wanted them to know that this creativity could be reached at any time they chose to sit down and let the muse take them away from the boundaries that keep us separate.

That is why I became a writing instructor.  I wanted my students to fall in love with writing just like I had.  I wanted  writing to save their lives, just as it had saved mine.  I wanted them to feel the urgency to create in whatever field they went in.  Assigning topics destroys that possibility.  Quite frankly, often assigned topics  interest only the instructor, or instructors chose topics so the student can exhibit knowledge.  But writing is not  meant to merely exhibit knowledge.  It is meant to engage us in the great creative process that has existed since before the beginning of time.  Creation–whether of an essay, an invention, a mathematical formula, a painting, a musical composition–creation is the finest activity in which we humans engage.  It is the closest we get to experiencing what it must be like to be the grand creator of the universe.

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