Doug Hesse

Larry Schiller, Toni Morrison, Doug Hesse, Bonnie Sunstein, Susan Reece; 10/20/2009 NYC

I was a member of the committee that formed NCTE’s National Day on Writing. Following is part of my forthcoming chapter, “Creative Nonfiction Accents the National Day on Writing,” which will appear in a book I co-edited with Laura Julier, Nonfiction, the Teaching of Writing, and the Influence of Richard Lloyd-Jones.

[Excerpt follows. Please don’t reproduce without permission.]

The National Day on Writing was born in an 800-word proposal that Kent Williamson brought to the NCTE Executive Committee in August 2008, as Agenda Item 22 of its summer meeting. Kent explained having been contacted by a staff member from the National Association of Secondary School Principals, who wondered if there was such a thing as a national writing day. The answer was no, but the idea generated interest among some NCTE leaders and staff, enough that Kent roughed out a few thoughts. President Kathi Yancey put it on the agenda for formal consideration, and the Executive Committee approved the concept and asked for preliminary planning. 

With an initial desire to have a national day devoted to writing occurring as early as late January 2009, time was rather of the essence. Kathi and Kent put together a committee consisting of Sharon Floyd, Jennifer Ochoa, Kathi, Kent, and me, with NCTE staff including Barbara Cambridge, Millie Davis, Mark Rowe, Sharon Roth, and Mila Fuller. Charged to bring a recommendation to the Executive Committee by September 1, we had our first phone call on August 19, which I took from a Denver kitchen in shambles from remodeling. The group brimmed with ideas that quickly organized around two poles. One cluster was the day itself, which would feature having people write, of course, but also other activities: advocacy, celebrations, and the like. The other cluster concerned possible activities leading up to the day itself. 

In his early proposal, Kent speculated that, “the Council could reach out through its membership to invite not just teachers/educators, but all whom they touch (including students, parents, and other community members) to post their writing through the NCTE website to a national log or archive.” He mused, further, that we might “mine the [resulting] database of collected writings to draw instructive lessons for policymakers during the 2010 Advocacy Month, and may well use the project as the rallying point for our first policy symposium or press conference in DC . . . cultivating grassroots support for future legislation or public initiatives that NCTE may choose to sponsor on 21st century literacies or writing” (Williamson, National Writing Day). Our committee embraced this general idea. One line of conversation focused on whether to have a theme for all this writing or simply make an open call. The other line focused on logistics and frameworks. I suggested that, rather than an archive or database of writings, we might use the language of a National Gallery of Writing, replete with halls, wings, and salons. Maybe we could have different people open and curate different parts of the gallery, their main job being to encourage submissions and provide some minimal screening. 

Email for Jo Anna Wisniewski on behalf of Kathi Yancey and Kent Williamson, 8/15/2008

We ended that first meeting by agreeing each to do quick writing, which Kent gathered and circulated before a second meeting (Williamson. “Agenda”). During that second conversation, we settled on recommendations to the Executive Committee that included creating a National Gallery of Writing. We also, not trivially, settled on The National Day on Writing—not “of.” The chosen phrase struck many as clunky, but our reasoning is that we didn’t want to imply people should write that day alone; in fact, one emerging interest was in bringing to the national consciousness how thoroughly writing pervaded all daily life, every day. The preposition “on” was to signify that this day would call attention to writing, that writing would be its feature and focus. People very well might write that day, but we wanted people on that day to think about writing. Years later, I’m not sure our subtlety was worth the effort. 

By the time Kathi Yancey delivered her president’s remarks at the November NCTE convention, much of the framework was established, as was the day’s purpose. Kathi explained:

This project affirms individual writers at the same time that it creates a major resource showcasing writing at the beginning of the 21st century. . . . [It] places the knowledge of NCTE members at the heart of a very dynamic, large-scale enterprise. Second, it allows us to serve a much wider public while also gaining recognition as a community that has much of value to offer society (and needs to be supported!). And finally, it has the potential to “de-mystify” writing for those who don’t think of themselves as writers while subtly making the point that writing is a skill that no segment of society can do without. (NCTE, “Minutes” 6)

With the help of Verizon and other partners, NCTE created,[1] an ambitious portal for gathering and displaying writing, and began building the national infrastructure to gather submissions. A brochure published in spring 2009 explained “three types of display spaces.” One was The Gallery of the National Council of Teachers of English, “a broad mosaic of writing” hosted by the Council. A second was The Gallery of National Partners, several spots hosted by the many corporate and educational partners who joined the enterprise, from Verizon to the National Writing Project. Third, and most capaciously, was The Gallery of Local Partners. Any group could apply for a salon in this last gallery, the brochure inviting families, classes, schools, churches, clubs, workplaces, cities or whatever. For example, I formed a Colorado Gallery of Writing, which I explained in an op-ed for The Denver Post, published October 17, 2009, inviting all Coloradans to send their writing. As you can see, NCTE’s impetus was radical openness and inclusivity. In fact, a key point of the National Day on Writing was to make visible and celebrate writing in all facets of life, from the grand to the mundane. We wanted everyone to recognize themselves as writers. Kent asked me to write a few invitational words for the launch brochure and the website, and I embraced the vision and, a little pretentiously, the voice of Walt Whitman. 

Let’s imagine America writing. 

Let’s imagine essayists and auditors, poets and nurses, tweeters and technicians, blogging beauticians, church bulletin scribes, advocates and analysts, authoring. 

Let’s imagine memoirs and memos, rants and remembrances, oral histories, letters to the future, postcards from the past, profiles profane and sacred, instructions, directions, reflections, retorts, factual and fancied. 

Let’s imagine a living American gallery of writing checked with salons, fitted by school or site, by genre or by identity, but most importantly by you, salons in which a homeless man’s story hangs next to the finance major’s wedding vows. 

Let’s imagine school kids linked to college students, teachers to professors, and all to city halls, shelters, board rooms, all linked by writing. 

Let’s gather writers who’d never thought themselves that: mothers, bus drivers, fathers, and veterans. Let’s have sharings, coffees, contests silly and celebratory, so that the national gallery of writing has myriad outposts, local and physical. Let’s open our writing centers to our communities. 

Let’s imagine October 20 and all this embodied in a National Day on Writing, a day when we cut the digital rope on our Gallery, when the Norman Mailer Writers Colony gives creative nonfiction awards to high school and college writers in a gala ceremony sponsored by famed New York writers, students whose work has been supported and selected by NCTE members. Actually, that day is planned. What’s needed to make it happen is you. Please help. 

—Doug Hesse, National Council of Teachers of English member, former chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, and director of Denver University’s University Writing Program

After a complex series of emails, October 20 emerged as the celebratory day itself, with a strong factor being the Mailer/NCTE Writing Awards, the logistics of that star-studded day creating a very narrow window. While the day had been set by early spring 2009, it received extra imprimatur October 8 in U.S. Senate Resolution 310, sponsored by Robert Casey (D-PA), which declared October 20, 2010 as the National Day on Writing and called on “educational institutions, businesses, community and civic associations, and other organizations to promote awareness of the National Day on Writing and celebrate the writing of their members through individual submissions to the National Gallery of Writing.” Barbara Cambridge, in NCTE’s Washington office, was fundamental to this effort. Several of us around the country garnered similar resolutions. My colleague Geoffrey Bateman persuaded Governor Bill Ritter to establish October 20 the National Day of Writing in Colorado, his staffer drafting the proclamation making known their preposition preference.

The day itself was a whirlwind. NCTE had set up the day’s activities in studio space at the New York Institute of Technology, at Columbus Circle in New York City. At 4:00 that afternoon, Kathi Yancey and I were live, doing a webcast on college writing. With naive faith in America’s airlines, I flew into LaGuardia earlier that afternoon and barely had time to check into a hotel on 57th Street to walk over to NYIT. Kathi and I talked about current developments in college writing. Prior to our hour-long session, numerous NCTE luminaries were live, including Cathy Fleischer and Linda Adler-Kassner, Lucy Calkins, Carol Jago, Ernest Morrell, Marilyn Valentino, and Bonnie Sunstein, who share a video, “What is a Writer.” Interspersed throughout the day, which ran ET 9:00 AM to 8:00 PM, hosts shared postings from the National Gallery of Writing.

But a few outsiders spoke, too. The featured presenter at 11:00 AM was listed as “Presidential candidate Obama on the important of writing (10 minutes) [sic]” (Williamson, “just to give you”). After the broadcast, I went back to my hotel, changed into a tux, and walked a mile south to Cipriani, on 42ndStreet, location of the Mailer Gala. Cipriani was an impressive space with marble columns, inlaid floors, lofty arches, and dramatic lighting, designed for the kind of ostentatious impression befitting the building’s origins as the Bowery Savings Bank and well repurposed for lending grandeur to events. I was barely in the door when the evening’s architect, Larry Schiller, introduced Bonnie Sunstein, Susan Reece, and me to William Kennedy and Toni Morrison. Morrison told us she’d once been an NCTE member.”

[1] This website no longer exists. All the writing gathered in the gallery seems lost.