We are at the point in the semester where Mizz G begins teaching “the writing process” to her English students.
We’ve actually been talking about it on and off all semester, because they’ve been writing and writing, for seven weeks now. Some of them have thrown off the cobwebs and are getting really good.
Part of that is due to the grammar brush-up I also teach in this particular course. But although we’ll keep referring to it, it’s time to let straight-up grammar recede into the background and let writing take over for the next eight weeks, when my students will be aggravating over and driven to near-tears writing the equivalent of four essays.
“Writing is a process,” the textbook and I tell them, “one that takes time and care. And if you take the time and care, it will be worth it in the end.”
To help drive this point, I use the “Whoop That Trick” scene from the 2005 film “Hustle & Flow.” The campus where I teach most often consists largely of African-American, Latino, and LGBT students, but no matter what their race or sexual orientation, they think it’s hilarious that a middle-aged white woman even knows about “Hustle & Flow,” much less says it out loud in class, and they hide their grins behind their hands.
By the time I utter the words “Whoop That Trick,” they can’t stand it anymore and burst out laughing.
All this aside, they quickly understand what I’m trying to tell them when I show them that the “Whoop That Trick” scene perfectly exemplifies the various steps in the writing process—any creative process—from brainstorming to finished piece.
In the film, DJay, a pimp, comes to the realization that he has a knack for writing rap lyrics—rhymes.
“My mode is crackin’,” he says, “[and] I can’t be stopped.” He dreams of one day becoming a rap artist.
These instincts burn inside of him and he begins carrying a notebook around with him everywhere. Every time he gets an idea, he writes it down in that notebook. He uses it so much that it starts to get a little ratty and dog-eared.
“This is some hard shit right here, trying to take what’s in your head, man, and put it into words that fit together like a puzzle,” he tells Nola, one of his girls.
DJay’s notebook signifies the brainstorming phase of the writing process. When something about one of his ideas strikes him, DJay takes it further and roughs out some lines. I liken this to the freewriting phase.
From his freewriting samples, DJay takes a selected few—rhymes he feels are really going somewhere—and finesses them, turning them into full-fledged first drafts with a beginning, middle, and end.
It is one of these first drafts that he shows up with the day Key and Shelby come to his house to do some recording in a homemade studio with McDonald’s drink holders (“poor man’s soundproofing”) stapled to the walls.
DJay wants to get high first (procrastination is part of the writing process, one of my writing professors used to tell us), but Shelby tells him, “No, man, we can toke up later. Let’s hear what you got.”
DJay presents his first draft, reciting the opening lines: “I bet you want to beat that bitch / whoop that bitch / got me actin’ buck and shit / hoes tellin’ me to calm down / but I’m like fuck that shit…”
DJay stops when he sees Key put his head in his hands. “What the fuck’s wrong?” he asks.
Key spurs the revision phase of the writing process.
“It’s just that we want radio play,” he tells DJay. “And you got a song called ‘Beat That Bitch.’ They might hear that and think that’s degrading.”
Shelby offers his input. “But that’s if you’re calling a woman a bitch,” he says. “Most of the bitches I know are guys.”
He turns to DJay. “If you had to say something different other than ‘beat that bitch,’ what would you say?”
DJay flips through his notebook and takes his own first pass at revising.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Stuff like ‘stomp that ho.’”
Key throws his hands in the air. “Who’s gonna play that?”
DJay makes a second revision. “‘Whoop that trick,’ ‘can’t trick’…”
“Wait, wait, wait, go back,” Key interrupts. “’Whoop that trick.’”
Shelby looks at Key. “That’s it,” he says.
Key suggests further revisions, including turning the line into a chant, adding the words “Get ‘im,” and arranging all the words into a rhythmic pattern. DJay chants along with Key—he’s so taken with it that he gets up out of his chair—and Shelby begins to lay down a beat.
“Find it, man, find it,” Key tells him. More revision. Another new draft.
Shelby adds a clap then more and more percussion. Key starts the chant and DJay joins in: “Whoop that trick / get ‘im / whoop that trick / get ‘im…” DJay picks up his notebook, referring to his other lines written there, and the real writing begins.
By the middle of the second verse, he puts the notebook down on the table. He is flowing now. Nola and Shug, who have been banished to the next room, hear that there is something special going on and come to the doorway. Key waves the women in. Everybody is up out of their seats and moving to the beat.
It’s all organic at this point; in this phase of the process, the song is practically writing itself, made possible by all the groundwork that has taken place before it.
When it ends, everyone in the room is breathless, spent.
“OK,” says Shelby. “Let’s go smoke that joint.”
I don’t condone weed smoking among my students, of course. But the metaphor is never lost on them: the ending stands for how they feel when they’re finally done with a college paper or essay, and they know they’ve done the best they can and that it turned out really good. “I don’t know how I did that,” they say. “I don’t know how I got from Point A to B to C.
“But I did it. And it feels good.”
Then they go crash on the couch for a little while, or throw a ball with the kids, or kiss their moms.
Then the process begins all over again the next time they have to write another paper. Like DJay, the more ideas they come up with, the more they rough out and rewrite, the better they get. DJay learns to write hit songs that make the charts; my students learn what it takes to write hit papers that make good grades.
Clips of the “Whoop That Trick” scene from the film “Hustle & Flow” don’t last long on YouTube—copyright infringement issues, I’m sure—so we’ll see how long the link I put here lasts. If you ever get a chance to see the movie, still a fresh take on the bildungsroman or “coming of age” story, I highly recommend it. Steve recommended it to me eight or so years ago, and it remains one of my favorites of all time.
I also use Skee-Lo to help teach subjunctive mood. We talk about how funny “I Wish” would sound if Skee-Lo sang it grammatically correctly: “I wish I were little bit taller” instead of “I wish I was…” There is indeed a difference between written English and spoken English, and one thing I try to convey in my classroom is that there are places for them both.