Over the last several weeks I have been thinking about writing and writing instruction. In a little over a week I will be leading two groups of high school students through a summer course in essay writing. In the fall I will be teaching three sections of freshmen the fundamentals of writing at the college level. With these courses in mind, I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I’ve also got Axelrod and Cooper’s Concise Guide to Writing
I spend a lot of time reading, writing, and talking about writing. I know it’s not as important to everyone else as it is to me, just like I know that some people care more about balancing their checkbook than I do. (Like everyone.) I try not to make every single conversation about writing, but all of my conversations are inextricably linked to my writing process. It’s like I’m carrying a giant Santa-bag full of words over my shoulder. In conversations, I am able to off-load some of the words in my sack, but at the same time, the words of others are crawling up the sides and into the mouth of that same sack. They mingle in there, all those words. They jumble; they bump against each other. They smooth each other’s edges. They rearrange and form ideas that I hadn’t thought of before.
All that shuffling and processing goes on and on…then I sit down to write, and stuff comes out of my fingers in ways that I had never imagined. I start picturing, for instance, that my words are kept in a giant Santa-bag, but that other people carry all of their words, at least the ones that they want to share, in an attractive little Coach bag neatly slung across their body. I can’t even imagine that! I am constantly stumbling along, wielding this enormous load of words — they are continually falling out, even when I try to close the top of the bag or shove it in the trunk of my car.
This is why I write. I write to use up some of the words in that bulky sack. I write to allow the newly formed ideas some space to express themselves. I write to protect you, my friends, from the fire hose of words that would come streaming out of my mouth uncontrollably if I did not temper the flow by putting 500 to 1000 words on the page in a day.
I teach writing because not everyone is as obsessed about the written word as I am, but almost everyone has to find a way to put their words down in print for one reason or another. Some people, I’ve found, want to improve their writing so that their work emails won’t be misconstrued. Some have to improve their writing so that they can be admitted into a college or program. Others are quite proficient in writing in another language but struggle to convey their meaning in English. And occasionally, a student wanders into my class, stumbling through the door, trying to find a space to cram his extra large Hefty bag full of words. He looks desperate. His eyes search my face pleadingly. I smile knowingly, show him where to sling his bag, pull out a chair, and tell him to start writing it all down.
He’s overwhelmed, of course. How could he possibly put it all down? Have I seen that bag? I nod compassionately and show him my Santa bag sitting outside the window of the classroom — it no longer fits through the door. He swallows hard, opens a blank notebook, and looks up at me. I nod and urge him on. His pen starts moving across the page. He doesn’t notice the other students filling in the chairs around him.He doesn’t look up when I start class. He doesn’t realize, either, an hour later when they’ve all left to go to their next classes. He’s still bent over his notebook.
So, I sit down, too. I open my notebook and pick up where I left off. We sit there and put our words on paper until they stop streaming out of our pens…or until we are exhausted or famished.
Then quietly we push back from our desks, shove our notebooks into our bags, and notice that they are a bit more manageable to carry. Our steps are a little lighter. We nod silently at one another and each go our own way.
For those moments and so many more, I am thankful for writing.
2 Corinthians 12: 4-6
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.