The Emotional Underlife of Writing

After a year of writing about supporting ELLs in the writing workshop, I’m excited and nervous to begin on the beat I’ve chosen for the year 2021-22: the emotional underlife of writing (title inspired by Thomas Newkirk’s phenomenal book, Embarrassment: And the Emotional Underlife of Learning).

Through all the unprecedented changes the pandemic has brought into our classrooms, something that hasn’t changed and is highly unlikely to change is, how, despite seemingly perfect external conditions, the inner condition of the writer affects their writing. This year on #movingwriters, I want to explore the difficult feelings of shame, inadequacy, incompetence, embarrassment, all very pertinent and probable in a writing classroom, yet easily forgotten, often ignored, and regularly mistaken for something else. I want to take a hard and kind look at how the adult writer in the room can mediate the writing workshop experience better to move writers to overcome their inner conditions. More importantly, I want to argue that such empathetic and thoughtful mediation can set students up for better outcomes in the future: in writing and otherwise. 

The Inner Condition

It’s 5:25 AM now. Everything is perfect, or at least it is supposed to be. The rest of the world is asleep. I got a good night’s sleep and woke up 2 minutes before the alarm went off. I sit here amidst the ticking of the clock and the clattering of the keyboard until the clattering slows down and finally stops. The sun is not here but it’s clear as day that I’m not going to make progress. I did everything right: ate dinner at the right time, went to sleep at the right time, woke up at the right time, heck, I even had socks laid out on my writing table in case my feet got cold. But the unhelpful voice in my head is steadily growing louder . . . 

I can’t believe that I have the audacity to name my beat after Thomas Newkirk’s book. The gall. Readers will laugh at me. Oh wait, that’s assuming anyone reads what I write. Obviously, they’d know what I’m about to say. They probably, no, most definitely know more. Of course, they know that their students face difficult feelings in the writing workshop. And they’d have figured out how to teach them to overcome the feelings.

Till a few years ago, I was so ashamed of my writing, (read: I believed so fully in the voice) that I failed to even acknowledge its presence. Since I began to understand that my students struggled with the same kind of feelings, my words of comfort for them in writing conferences began to slowly creep into my head alongside the ever-present harsh criticism. It helps to wonder what I might say to a student who believes she has nothing useful to say. It keeps me from yielding to shame and embarrassment and turning my computer off. And, knowing that I routinely fall into such depths of self-doubt has been crucial to uncovering similar feelings in my students, hitherto unknown to me due to their rock-solid defenses, or in Newkirk’s words, “three self-evident facts of social life that get in the way of seeking the help we need.” 

  1. The Performative Principle: In all social encounters we play roles that we desire to perform competently. Embarrassment involves the discrediting information that undermines our performances.
  2. The Vanity Principle: Humans habitually tend to overestimate their capacities – which leads to dissonance and discomfort when we confront situations that fail to support this self-image.
  3. The Awkwardness Principle: Any act of learning requires us to suspend a natural tendency to want to appear fully competent. We need to accept the fact that we will be awkward, that our first attempts at a new skill will, at best, be only partial successes. Moreover, we need to allow this awkwardness to be viewed by some mentor who can offer feedback as we open ourselves up for instruction.” (Newkirk, chapter 1)

Let me introduce to you 3 of my students who taught me Newkirk’s principles: 

1. Soniya, the performer

13-year-old Soniya always said the right thing in writing conferences. 

“You’re right, Ms. Aishwarya. I was thinking about just that.”

“Can I have a conference tomorrow? I am in the middle of something now.” 

“I forgot my drafts at home, Ms. Aishwarya.” 

Little did I know that Soniya had mastered how to hide her difficulties. When I hit brick wall after brick wall despite having what I thought was the perfect mini-lesson, the perfect conference, and the perfect, sincere student, I couldn’t understand why the writing and writer remained unmoved. It hit me like a brick when I found out after more than a year that Soniya’s relatively low IQ meant that she needed special education services. But, she knew so well how to camouflage her difficulties with words that sounded ‘knowing’ and in-tune with the class. 

2. Sannidhi, the vain

14-year-old Sannidhi got her peers to proofread her work and rewrote every draft with corrected spellings before allowing me to lay my eyes on them. She used the flexibility and choice of the writing workshop classroom to keep up this charade for more than 3 years. In the rare event that too many of her spellings were wrong, she had ready-made answers I couldn’t argue with. 

“Sorry, Ms. Aishwarya, I was in a hurry. I’ll manage time better next time. Would you mind if I retake this test?” 

She couldn’t admit to herself or others that she was struggling to spell simple words like ‘girl’ until it was uncovered that she was dyslexic. She was right about the fact that she was smarter than what her spellings showed. But, she didn’t know the reason for the dissonance. The overwhelming relief the diagnosis gave her is further proof of the fact that she was deeply ashamed of her spelling errors. “This means, my spelling is not totally my fault, right, Ms. Aishwarya?” 

3. Chandrika, the awkward  

5-year-old Chandrika’s behavior puzzled me. She was excited to come to class, excited about all the letters she knew, was faster than most children her age, and yet, when it was time to learn to write a new letter, she seemed to change into someone else. She threw stationery at me and went on to say things like, “If you’re so interested, you write <G>.” 

A chance read-aloud of When I Feel Frustrated solved the puzzle. In the book, Josh, a young child, gets frustrated when he can’t succeed in seemingly simple tasks such as putting his hand into the sleeve of his jacket. His parents help him understand that he is still learning and that when he is older and has had more time to practice the skill, he’d be able to do it very well. Chandrika looked me straight in the eye and asked, “What about grownups? They do everything so fast!” Once I explained that grownups never do anything so fast the first time and gave her examples of my struggles now and when I was her age, she no longer reacts so strongly to new learning tasks. She is more willing to take risks and allow herself the time and grace to fail at her first few attempts. 

Given that embarrassment is pervasive, how can an adult help students battle the pressures of performance, vanity, and awkwardness in the writing workshop? 

Every month, I plan to suggest one idea in this direction. 

September Suggestion

Keep in touch with your own embarrassment. 

As adults, we are sometimes in phases of life when we may not be learning anything particularly hard or from scratch. In such phases, it is easy to forget how embarrassing a learning experience can be. 

The easiest way to keep in touch with your own embarrassment is to constantly learn new and hard things. Since this is not practical, here’s what else you can do: 

  1. Remember the embarrassing incidents from your past. Allow yourselves to feel the difficult feelings completely in a safe space. Journal about them. 
  2. When you try something new, say, a new recipe, be aware of how you’re feeling. It usually helps to remind myself that I’m trying this without fear of failure in my own kitchen. What if someone were to be watching me now? What if there were grades attached to the dish?
  3. Write as regularly as you can. Although all learning can be plagued with embarrassment, the specific difficulties of writing are unique. Writing often leads to struggling often. It’s then easier to remember the struggle during a writing conference with a student who may look insincere at first glance. 

Much like you can’t love another if you can’t love yourselves, you can’t empathize with your students’ writing-related embarrassments if you don’t empathize with your own writing-related embarrassments. When your heart is filled with empathy, kinder and more useful words will find their way into your mini-lessons and conferences, alleviating your students’ struggles one tiny bit at a time. 

What do you do to keep in touch with your own embarrassment?

You can connect with me on Twitter @teachingtenets or on Facebook at

– Aishwarya


Newkirk, Thomas. Embarrassment: And the Emotional Underlife of Learning. Portsmouth, NH, Heinemann, 2017.

NOTE: All student names are changed to protect their identity.

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  1. This is beautifully said. I am a preservice teacher that will be beginning student teaching in January. My first unit is a writing narratives unit, and I have been reading around for good advice on how to help students become brave writers. I love this idea that when we allow students to see our struggles and imperfections that they will allow us to see theirs. Thank you.

    1. It’s music to my ears that you’re already thinking about helping students become brave writers even before formally stepping into the classroom. I wish you the very best for your first year of teaching and the rest of your teaching career!

  2. An unexpected and one of the most useful suggestions I have ever heard. Here’s a PD read in 5 minutes that I will never forget.

    I am eagerly waiting for your next suggestions! As always, you write with such simplistic honesty that it is very encouraging to continue to stay in this field. After reading you, it feels as if all we need is our fullest selves and honest work.

  3. I will be excited to read future posts on this topic.. After being an EAL teacher in grade 7-10 in Egypt and Vietnam for 7 years, this year I moved back to the ELA classroom, grade 12 (still in Vietnam). My students are so tangled in their writing trying to learn English, focus on conventions, use “big words, ” use all the “summarizing and rewordifying machines in order to avoid actually writing, that they never really stay true to the topic. And this had been their writing life for at least the last 6 years. Their grade 11 teacher often talked to them about vulnerability and that has been my mantra as well this year. We are starting with lots of journaling that is ungraded, timed and I provide prompts or they can use their own. I’m starting to see some confidence here and looking forward to their experiments with longer writing. Thank you for this reminder to “keep trying new and hard things.”

    1. I totally understand what you’re describing, Susan. I’ve faced much the same with students who are ambitious and sincere. They want to crack it so bad. Formulaic and ‘hack the writing’ teaching in the past only makes it worse.
      I wish you all the best for this year’s journey and would love to hear how your year progresses. Keep in touch!

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