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Writing: Smothering the creative flame

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Posted on 
February 22, 2021

I almost gave up writing for good. And yet … When I was a little girl, I used to enjoy writing sentences, little stories and even poems. But one day, someone poured cold water on my writing. Let me tell you what happened.

I think I was about 9 or 10, and there were a few children’s books I liked to read. I knew some of La Fontaine’s fables. I was drawn to them, even though I probably didn’t grasp their meaning. That day in class, Teacher, which is what we called her at the time, asked us to write a composition on “a visit to the cemetery.” I guess it must have been November, but the topic was of no interest to me, and I was certainly not the only one in class who felt that way. I had never been to a cemetery, but I could see the pain, tears and endless sorrow in my mother’s eyes whenever someone in her family passed away. I was familiar with those sad New Year’s, so sad that they scarred me for life. Every year, we would mourn the person who was no longer with us.

Staring at my lined notebook, I sought inspiration to complete my assignment, like a good student. And so I wrote … a poem, on the dreaded topic that had been assigned. I remember the first line: “The clouds wept all night.” It was naïve, but it came from the pain that I had often seen in my grandmother when someone died.

I handed in my assignment and was pleased that I had come up with a few lines. Imagine my surprise the next day when my teacher asked me to come to the front of the classroom! With a stern look, she made me walk up to the podium. I immediately understood that she had not liked my assignment. She took my notebook, tossed it on her desk and told me that she could give me no more than half the marks for my composition and that she wouldn’t even correct it. It was a poem, even though I didn’t know what it was because I had never studied poetry. I went back to my seat in tears, and it was hard for me to talk to my parents about it. In that moment, I realized that I didn’t know how to write and that I would never know how.

A surprising twist …

Years later, I rediscovered the joy of writing and studied to become a French teacher. I tried, successfully, if I may say, to instill a love of reading and writing in my high school students. I ran into an issue when I had to change the topic of a composition that a colleague had brilliantly suggested. The topic was “Describe your bedroom.” I knew that some of my students were living in difficult conditions. They didn’t have a bedroom or even part of a hallway as their personal space. How would I get them interested without making them feel discouraged or humiliated, as I had felt? I changed the topic to “Describe a place that you love.”

While I was teaching, I started a career in communications. It became my main job, my livelihood for nearly two decades. I wrote non-stop.

I’m pleased with my journey. Above all, I’m glad that I rekindled my love for writing, and I’m constantly discovering its virtues. It feels good to write. You’re never alone when you write, even in a lockdown. I sometimes think about that teacher … I’d like to believe that I was the only one who lost out on years of not being able to enjoy this skill, to experience the joy that comes with stringing words together. Today, I’m writing about it as a reminder of how important encouragement is in a child’s or young teenager’s development. I know that teachers are different now; they’re not like that teacher from my childhood. Isn’t the role of a teacher to guide students, to encourage their efforts, and to foster discovery, the desire to create, and the need for self-expression?

Writing feeds the soul. More than ever, I’m convinced that writing opens the mind through the richness of language and the creativity that it ignites. Shouldn’t we strive to develop a passion for writing in young people and avoid smothering the flame? As adults, can we understand that? Let’s spark creativity!

Translated by Anne-Marie Tugwell, Language Portal of Canada

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The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

About the author

Hélène Massé

Hélène Massé

Hélène Massé is a communications consultant who is currently enjoying an active retirement that allows her to choose stimulating professional activities. As a consultant, she organizes media events, provides editing services and offers coaching in communications. Hélène holds a master’s degree in education and taught before pursuing a career in communications in both the private and public sectors, where she rose to the challenges of cultural and media production. She was the board chair of the Académie Antoine Manseau and the Musée d’art de Joliette for a number of years and is now the vice-chair of the board at the Musée du Haut-Richelieu.

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Pedagogy requires empathy, and I can attest to that fact, having been taught in a teaching faculty in the 1950s. Good teachers created themselves, however, in the classroom experience itself, silently gauging which student needed an opportunity in the moment and seizing that opening for self-expression.

"The clouds wept all night" was darned good for primary school: you should have been given a gold star, not a scolding.

You remind us that creative writing can be therapeutic. I have lost sight of that, spending my working hours trying to coach people writing non-fiction, trying to get them close to something as crystalline as "the clouds wept all night."

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