How to write: The student's moment

I just spent a week in erica kaufman’s workshop at the Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard, which brings together secondary and college teachers for workshops and conferences focused on how to use writing as central to how we generate and refine our ideas about literature and language (and all subjects; we had biology and music teachers in our section). In one session, we worked with three essays about writing, George Orwell’s “Why I Write,” Jamaica Kincaid’s “In History,” and William Carlos Williams’s “How to Write.” Orwell’s portrait of the writer is essentially as political activist; Kincaid’s is of the courage to rewrite history; Williams’s is of a double mind commanding the double function of the text. Williams appears less political than Orwell or Kincaid, until the end of his essay, where he launches an attack on the teaching of standard English in American schools.

What might be the relationship between this well-known critique Williams held (“Why bother with English when we have a language of our own?”) and how Williams depicts the writing process in this piece? That is, what Williams calls the “deepest mind” and the “fore-brain” of the writer, the latter being the thing that in his words “attacks” a piece of writing once it is set down, editing, criticizing, and making possible what Williams calls “modern verse structures.” Modernism becomes a wholly cognitive entity in this essay, it seems:

But once the writing is on the paper it becomes an object. It is no longer a fluid speaking through a symbolism of ritualistic forms but definite words on a piece of paper. It has now left the region of the formative past and come up to the present. […] [The writer] has written with his deepest mind, now the object is there and he is attacking it with his most recent mind, the fore-brain, the seat of memory and ratiocination, the so-called intelligence. […] 

This is the student’s moment. (37–38)

That the student is the bearer of the “fore-brain”: Williams suggests a pedagogy of modernist writing. Who is the teacher?

(Quotations from Williams, “How to Write,” from New Directions in Prose & Poetry 1936: A Retrospective Selection, edited by James Laughlin)