Two of my students write on their smartphones. Another records himself reading class notes aloud, so he can play the tapes back to himself and study during his hour commute to campus.
One student writes her drafts by hand, while another, who also writes by hand sometimes, feels less restricted and can get organzied more easily when composing electronically.
Another student writes songs in a journal. (I never thought to ask if he performed the songs; I hope he does.)
Yet another suggests, in his response to an essay by Allegra Goodman on quieting the “inner critic,” that at times he feels (and I’m paraphrasing here) like he might burst, so strong is the desire to write something down.
Sometimes I think I’m going to miss all this.
Because it’s useful work, teaching writing. I recently read a LinkedIn post in which the writer listed three (or possibly five) things he wished he’d taken a stronger interest in while in college.
Shocker: writing was one.
I also remember being intrigued by another writer’s claim that all company heads ought to blog. I don’t know this writer’s reasons for making this claim; at times I’m as guilty as any reader of skimming headlines. I’d be willing to bet, though, that one of this writer’s reasons was that writing gives you the chance to clarify what you’re thinking in any given situation. Expose your values and motivations to scrutiny.
Teaching and writing are both helpful, useful, and empowering. Maybe each is all three at once. In both roles — as teacher and as writer — you can leap out of your skin, reach out in ways you simply can’t anywhere or anyhow else.
Some don’t think so; others could care less; still others have trouble staying awake throughout an entire hour-and-fifteen-minute session. Some drop the course; others show up for a few sessions and are then never heard from again.
I tell myself often that these cases have much more to do with pressures students are facing elsewhere than with the course I’m teaching. I was a student once myself; I know how much goes into planning and owning one’s college career. You go where you think you must; you go where you have to. Rarely, if ever, do you cease taking a course on account of the professor. More often it’s a scheduling conflict, an unexpectedly heavy workload in another course, or some sense that the teaching philosophy and your study habits will wind up clashing in unproductive ways.
I get by. I do what I can — what I must — to get the work done on both fronts. I write in legal tablets. I write and rewrite the same piece eight hundred times (not really; it feels that way.) I struggle with the notion that I’m any good at this. Other times, I feel I’m flying.
There’s an unfinished novel in my “Projects-in-Progress” folder. There are three novellas full of characters waiting for some direction. Until I push back into the worlds those novellas open onto, those characters sit waiting. Sometimes it’s fun to imagine them living out the rest of the drama, or engaging in some entirely other drama I couldn’t possibly imagine, while I attend to my other responsibilities. I know this is worthless thinking, that nothing will happen with any of those stories until I decide what comes next.
I showed a story once to a member of my family who asked me if it was my intention for my readers to dislike my characters.
I showed another piece to my mother-in-law, one of the most voracious and generous readers I know, anticipating that there was something about the story I’d decided to share with her that wouldn’t come off right.
Sure enough, she suggested the characters didn’t capture her interest, didn’t offer anything for her to root for.
I mentioned above that I was going to miss all this. You might have been wondering: miss all of what? What will, or is about to, change?
When I wrote that, I was thinking of the job I’m about to start seeking; I was thinking of the other priorities in my life; I was thinking about bank balances, and how essential it is to strike a balance between a dream and a healthy savings account.
I was thinking about five years from now; beyond that time, even. I was thinking about how often in the past I have felt like I’ve left myself empty-handed, and how strong a wall these empty-handed feelings can sometimes be, keeping me from listening to others, from finding ways to connect to what they’re feeling, so caught had I become with my own creative struggles. I was thinking about how sick I’ve become of carrying those hapless feelings with me, and how I want to try hard to think instead of the students I’ve helped, and those worlds I’ve opened all these tiny little windows onto.
In one of those worlds, a father sneaks outside to inspect his son’s car. There’s been some damage done, both to the car and, farther back in the past, to the father’s and son’s relationship. While the son showers, the father shines a flashlight in through the busted-out passenger side window; watches the light catching the flecks and shavings of glass left on the seat; ventures around to the back of the car and checks the trunk for–he doesn’t know what. He finds nothing.
This impromptu inspection might have ended there; in earlier drafts it did. Those drafts failed to catch any heat when I sent them out into the world.
Time passed; when dejection waned I started to think again about the story, I began by listening more carefully to the father. I started to realize how constricted he felt, and how constricting were his attempts to protect his wife, and daughter and son–and himself–from grief.
His constricted feelings were constricting me, constricting the story.
How many writers have turned an overly cautious character’s caution into conflict?
The window opened a little wider, and I realized the car would call the father back to it even after the inspection turned up nothing but shame for snooping. Whereas at first I had seen that shame as a deterrent, now I saw it as fuel. The father had just witnessed his son threaten to leave, to drive drunk two hours back to his apartment and the girlfriend with whom he’d had a fight. He would not have felt his words were powerful enough to keep his son. He would have had to do more.
I’ll spare you the details (I’m no fan of spoilers, myself); rest assured the father’s actions helped me discover something about the nature of protection; how we sometimes have to try something that doesn’t work–many somethings, sometimes– in order to discover our motives. Once we discover what drives us, we open up our motivation to scrutiny, revision.
This – this I will not miss.