Professional writers’ identities: the perceived influence of formal education and early learning

Cremin, Teresa; Lillis, Theresa; Myhill, Debra and Eyres, Ian (2016). Professional writers’ identities: the perceived influence of formal education and early learning. In: Cremin, Teresa and Locke, Terry eds. Writer Identity and the Teaching and Learning of Writing. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 19–36.



The range and amount of writing taking place across all domains of life in the 21st century is expanding rapidly. At home, in school, at work and in the community, children, young people and adults write for numerous purposes and in multiple modes. Professional writers too capitalise on the multimodal diversity available and employ a range of materials and technologies. What it means to be a ‘writer’ in different domains and the myriad of influences upon individual writers’ texts composed in different contexts is part of the focus of this book. Predominantly it explores the identities of teachers, trainee teachers and students as writers, both within and beyond school. However this chapter focuses on the identities of professional writers. It draws upon a cross-university study which investigated the nature of twelve UK-based professional writers’ identities and histories as writers and their composing practices.

There is a great deal of literature which retrospectively examines professional writers’ life stories and personalities (e.g. Piirto, 2002; Kaufman, 2002; Goertzel, Goertzel and Goertzel, 1978), and a long tradition of self-reflection on the part of novelists and poets who write for children and young people, mainly considering their childhoods (e.g. Dahl, 1984; Ahlberg, 2006) and/or their compositional practices (e.g. Le Guin, 2004; Morpurgo, 2006). Additionally, there is considerable research examining academic writers’ identities (e.g. Ivanic, 1998; Lea and Steirer, 2011; Lillis, 2001; Lillis and Curry, 2010) and some material produced by writers who have been or still are teachers (and vice versa), reflecting upon the challenges and interplay involved (e.g. Spiro, 2007; Vakil, 2008). Indeed many well-known and respected writers, both novelists (e.g. David Lodge, Michael Morpurgo, Iris Murdoch, Maya Angelou, Philip Pullman), and poets (e.g. W.H. Auden, Tony Mitton, Robert Frost) have been teachers. There is however noticeably less research which explicitly employs an identity lens to consider the identity enactments and practices of professional writers from diverse domains. Within the current study, the perspectives of writers from three professional domains - novelists/poets, journalists/magazine columnists and academic writers were examined. A biographical stance was adopted in the interviews conducted and on this basis the multiplicity and diversity of their voices and identity enactments were examined.

The intention of the chapter is to give voice to these professional writers’ perspectives in order to complement those offered elsewhere in the book and to explore possible insights related to the teaching of writing and the development of young writers. In order to do so it focuses upon data related to the writers’ early reading practices and their reported experience of formal schooling.

The chapter commences by considering the challenge of developing young people’s identities as writers in education, and then examines research into professional writers’ identities. Then the research study’s design and methodology is presented. Two research questions are explored:

0 What significant/critical ‘formal education’ memories do the professional writers recall/report?
0 What, if any, connections to early reading do the professional writers make?

Next the findings related to these questions are presented in turn and discussed. The chapter concludes by considering the ramifications for policy and practice.

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