By Dave Madden @DMaddenMMA
Isn’t it terrific when worlds you’d never imagine crossing paths collide head on? Recently, my world’s greatest hobby, MMA, and my professional life as a teacher walked hand-in-hand, regenerating my energy-level to mentor young writers to take a seat in the author’s chair. MMA does something paranormal to my senses and connecting my day-to-day living to my bell-to-bell blood-lusting was the opposite end of my rainbow.
While engaging in my daily Internet research, the latest and greatest in the world of fenced boundaries and matted floorboards resided on the Twitter feed of MMA Latest (@MMALatestNws). They posted an item tagged for my, @DMaddenMMA, eyes only (or so it felt). In reality, the artifact that tugged my curiosity had actually circulated cyberspace more times than I have followers: a letter sent from a kid named Joelle W. to UFC middleweight contender “Smile’N” Sam Alvey.
— MMA Latest (@MMALatestNws) August 7, 2015
Joelle W.’s letter to Alvey filled my lesson plan book with potential lessons, activities, and conferences to implement with the youthful writers I’ll encounter in the freshly minted school year. Invisible to students are the components of writer’s workshop that Joelle W. successfully maneuvered. Likely, others perceive a cute letter cluttered with childish errors: crossed out words and misspellings. Joelle W.’s correspondence with Alvey will act as a mentor because she walks out from behind the curtain to take center stage with a firm grasp on the writing process that remains invisible to beginning writers: planning, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing.
The Writing Process
Theoretically, the writing process, established by Donald Murray in his manifesto: Teach Writing as a Process Not a Product (1972), operates in a linear or cyclical fashion:
As a testament to the writer’s struggle of trudging through the writing process, a more accurate depiction is as follows:
Attempting to unravel a complicated process for my students is a tangled web indeed!
MMA fans are “Smile’N” from ear-to-ear when confronted with Alvey’s charismatic allure; his grin is infectious. Joelle W. smiled wide and prideful all the way to her writing space to knock out a friendly letter to her favorite KO specialist. Broadcasting MMA more regularly opens the greater potential for fans of fighters to forge blossoming friendships. Sam Sheridan weighed in on the relationship between a fighter and fan in his autobiography A Fighter’s Heart (2008),
“You learn so much about a person by watching him fight that you feel you know him.” (p. 130)
From the initial stages of brainstorming until the letter was signed, sealed, and delivered, Joelle W. proved to be a youthful MMA enthusiast with a knack for scratching out her truths. I’d venture that referencing Joelle W.’s letter in conjunction with an instruction that introduces students to the writing process will measure more valuable than a Performance of the Night bonus.
With the finished product to assess, my opinion on Joelle W.’s ability to plan is purely conjecture. Is she the kind of student who waits for grass to grow as an added detail, or does she set her paper ablaze with her pencil’s tip? Is she somewhere in the middle?
Personally, I don’t overly hassle the kids that think longer than what feels comfortable, even in these times of pressure-filled panics to score a predetermined proficiency; eventually, the writing starts to flow. Kicking ideas around before execution is necessary for writers of all ages, especially kids. The value in planning was perceived by Woody Allen as,
“…planning it. That’s ninety percent of the work-pacing the floor, thinking it out, the plot and the structure. The actual writing just takes two to three weeks. Writing it down for me is the easiest part.” (Murray, 1990. p. 93)
Further elaboration on the need for writers to play in imagination was eloquently spelled out by E.B. White,
“Delay is natural to the writer. He is like a surfer-he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive with him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along.” (Murray, 1996. p. 17)
The moment the time was right for Joelle W., she drafted her sphere surrounding Alvey, pouring her fanfare onto the sheet of paper.
Drafting progresses the writer from a position of the pencil resting on the lip and thinking…thinking…thinking to doing. At the moment the pen and paper connect, all caution should be thrown to the wind. The draft is the time for error: miss weight, forget about head movement, or even break before the bell. Fear of failure alarms students who believe their writing will encounter: red ink, grammar snobs, or suggestions to add more here.
Writing for an audience carries immense pressure. It’s scary to speak from the heart, and writing comes from no other place. “Big” John McCarthy, an iconic MMA referee, discussed the very real fear fighters go through in relation to taking center stage; all eyes on them. In his autobiography Are You Ready? Let’s Get It On!: The Making of MMA and Its Ultimate Referee (2011), he educated his readers,
“What most people don’t understand is the fear involved with going out there. It’s not so much the fear of the fight but of failure. You’re putting yourself out there for everyone to judge you.” (p. 347)
The angst of readers’ swirling judgments mixed with any sense of failure can only cook up a disaster. On November 12, 1993, MMA’s originals, the cast of UFC 1, risked their art’s validity by competing in the hand-to-hand tournament. Art Davie, MMA’s mastermind, articulated his attempt at unearthing a fight fans’ classic question in his autobiography Is This Legal?: The Inside Story of the First UFC From the Man Who Created It (2014): Who is the ultimate fighter?
“There was a lot more risk than reward for these guys to be given the chance to show the world what they did really worked. A loss meant that maybe they weren’t all that they claimed. An ass kicking meant that they were pretty much full of shit, and so too was their fighting style.” (p. 212)
It requires considerable time for students to begin to trust in the failure of their drafts as a viable option. Sometimes, the writer will rejoice in scoring a flattening bomb, as was the case when Alvey fought Cezar Ferreira at UFC Fight Night Porto Alegre, Brazil, or situations may prove unfavorable; for instance, Alvey’s fight against Brunson raised eyebrows, questioning an early stoppage. Drafting is the time for both because the process is far from reaching any championship rounds.
Revise, review, revisit, return to your draft, but why? I notice students name this step in the writing process: redundant. Teachers are met with inquisitive looks, heads cocked, and students’ faces screaming, “But I’m done!” The elementary sing-song trained into my pedagogy sirens, “Once you’re done, you’ve only just begun.”
Rereading Joelle W.’s letter, it’s not outlandish to claim that she painstakingly reworked her letter to Alvey. When I kneel down to confer with one of my own writers, I cycle through a laundry list of questions bullet-pointed by Murray (1996):
- What surprised you?
- What did you expect to read? How was what you read different from your expectations?
- What do you remember most vividly?
- What do you learn from the writing and reading?
- What one thing does a reader need to know?
- What is the single most important detail, quote, fact, idea, in the draft?
- What single message may the final draft deliver? (p. 62)
As I position myself alongside a student writer, I validate successful choices and nudge toward a completed piece that spins the reels in a reader’s mind. I discerned that Joelle W. lacks a basic element of research, though she is not alone in excluding some easily overlooked Googling. With stronger schema, the writer is able to condense deeper levels of information, encoding vibrant details for the reader. Diane Ackerman was copied and pasted into Jeff Anderson’s 10 Thing Every Writer Needs to Know (2011) in a chapter outlining details,
“The senses feed shards of information to the brain like microscopic pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.” (p. 67)
By introducing Joelle W. to a kid friendly search engine on the Internet (I use www.safesearchkids.com), she could have answered her own initial questions about Alvey’s upcoming fights and practice facility. Joelle W.’s wondering about “the other glove” may not materialize through the monitor quickly, and I’m certain Alvey smiled larger than usual at such an inquiry; the questions that come from a place of true wonderment from the richest meanings for readers. If Joelle W. were provided instruction in properly using search engines, she may have refined her questions: Which training partners are most effective to your growth as a fighter? How much time do you spend at practice each day? What emotions do you think you’ll be going through before you say my name on the mic? Writers, like fighters going through training camp, refine and hone their skills within this valuable phase of revision.
If a student was confounded during revision, the world of editing can easily come crashing down on them. Producing a text with proper punctuation, capitalization, spelling, grammar, and text structure can prove nerve-racking. Typically, misspellings are red-flagged by readers with immediacy, yet Joelle W., by my calculation, would benefit from a thoughtful examination of her letter’s structure.
In the moment, Joelle W. was very successful in developing meaning in her friendly letter to Alvey, and with this text, in particular, Joelle W. would likely remember the friendly letter’s structure forever by focusing her attention on the over-usage of indenting at the salutation and closing; in addition, her signing of the letter should be placed under the closing. These minor adjustments would have prompted Alvey’s “Smile’N” even more instantaneously, recognizing a friendly letter based upon its universally understood structure.
I normally would only stick to one teaching point when conferring with my student writers, but Joelle W.’s voice could be amplified by simply building upon her already preexisting knowledge of paragraphing. When Joelle W. prepares Alvey for her slough of questions, her placement of the ellipsis radiates personality. This is Alvey’s #1 fan-ready to let some questions fly; “I have questions for you…” could speak to Alvey as, “Are you ready?” If Joelle W. restructured this sentence into its own paragraph, she may decide that her voice trumpets louder than the ten-second clapper that signals a round’s end with only a slight manipulation of the text.
There is a strict sense of control while editing, and I’m privy to creating an environment in which developing writers aren’t overwhelmed. Sheridan (2008) depicted the control of the Jiu-Jitsu gi in a similar fashion as the control used by an editor gaining experience,
“The gi is a mystery; it chokes and pulls and twists around your body. It controls you. By controlling the gi, you control the man inside it.” (p. 114)
Expecting perfection from writers at such a beginning level is unfair, but it is well within reason that they perform on a comparable platform as previously assessed while simultaneously projecting observable extensions in growing their control with the inner workings of text.
Publication is a time for reflection as much as it is a time for celebration. The writer relives all that went into the piece that is just right for their audience, but they indeed hope to strike it rich by inciting the intended response.
With Alvey dropping into the loss column at UFC Fight Night Nashville, Tennessee, he wasn’t allotted any time on the microphone with a post-fight interview, but he paid more than a smile forward by meeting Joelle W.’s other objective: “write back.”
The euphoria that cycles through a writer when they achieve their anticipated reaction should be bottled and retailed for all – it’s incredible. After conferring with Joelle W. about the various aspects of her piece throughout the writing process, the advice I’d impart on her was best stamped by former UFC champion, Pat Miletich, who delivered this line to Sheridan (2008),
“Everything gets better, cars get better, watches get better, computers…Why should fighting be stuck in the Middle Ages?” (p. 100)
Not fighting, nor writing.