As I get ready for the coming school year, I find myself inspired and excited to meet my students and to begin a year of learning with them. Most years at this time, I just find myself stressed, feeling underprepared, under-rested, and begging for just one more week off (like, just one more week would solve the complex problem of my procrastination).
But this year, I am ready.
Are my lessons planned? Uh, not compleltely. Is my classroom cleaned and tidy and welcoming? Definitely not yet! Have I read all of the books that I was hoping to? I never do (this always comes as a surprise despite my deep self awareness of my painfully slow reading habits).
So, why the inspiration this year? Why the excitement in the face of so much to do?
Well, I spent three days last week with some very generous colleagues, friends and former students who gave up their time to attend a writing workshop that I was hosting. This workshop was to be nothing more than an opportunity for all of us to sit down and have some time to write. It felt so important to me—and not just because people would be giving up their last few days of summer to join in, but more because I wanted the days to be filled with meaningful writing experiences and for participants to walk away feeling some sense of fulfillment and joy in their writing.
I planned this event meticulously—carefully selecting texts for quick writes, determining a means to quickly create a community of writers where all felt safe to write and to share, selecting activities that would be as worthwhile as they were enjoyable. It took way longer than I thought it would to gather materials and to prepare folders—this work alone left me exhausted.
Yet when these writers arrived, my energy reignited.
As we eased into the hard work of writing and sharing, I stood back in awe (and maybe with teary eyes). Something about the sight of my friends and colleagues furiously writing in notebooks moved me unexpectedly. I couldn’t figure it out. I work with young writers for a living. Why was this so different? Why was I so moved?
And it was this. As teachers, we expect writing from our students—we preach the importance of writing and of story as we carefully usher our kids through the writing process—offering choice, guidance, conferences, and hoping to instill confidence. We do this not simply because writing is an important skill but because it is freedom and with our words and our voice comes great power to tell the truth of our story. Sure, writing is important in college and in our day to day lives but its heart and its greatest weight lies in the writer’s ability to share their truth and to create empathy in the reader thus banishing the falsehood and tunnel vision of any single story.
Even with this knowledge and this understanding in our hearts; even though we are inspired by the beauty of the young writers in front of us; even though we demand their vulnerability as they pour themselves onto the page and turn it in for critique and dare I even say it, a grade, as part of a learning process, so often we do not grant ourselves as teachers the time and opportunity to write, to tell our stories, to feel the weight and the power and the freedom for ourselves. There are papers to grade, lessons to plan, and families to care for. And what would we write about anyway? Who would want to read it? Where would I even begin? What’s the point? (I’ve discovered, by the way, that all of my excuses for not writing mirror my students’…apparently, I need to start taking some of my own writing advice!)
When it comes down to it, writing is hard. And it can be terrifying to truly put ourselves on the page. There are lines in an A.E. Stallings poem titled “Explaining an Affinity for Bats” that read like this: “ Who find their way by calling into darkness/To hear their voice bounce off the shape of things” (http://www.versedaily.org/affinitybats.shtml). She is writing about bats, but of course also about writers—specifically poets. This idea of “calling into the darkness” speaks to the truth of writing as we don’t always know where our writing will take us, but like the bats, we call out anyway “To hear [our] voice bounce off the shape of things.”
Or maybe it’s simpler than all of this. Maybe, creative expression is more like what Mary Oliver describes in her poem, “The Storm.” (http://www.poetseers.org/contemporary-poets/mary-oliver/mary-oliver-poems/the-storm/index.html)
“…Running here running there, excited,
hardly able to stop, he leaps, he spins
until the white snow is written upon
in large, exuberant letters,
a long sentence, expressing
the pleasures of the body in this world.”
Sure, she’s writing about her dog in the fresh fallen snow, but I also think she is saying something here about the joys and freedom of writing. I think that sometimes as teachers we might lose sight of this side of things. Between all of the requirements of grades, report cards, testing, making sure we are teaching what students need while often not granting ourselves the time we need to write as well, it is easy to lose track of the exuberance that should come with creative expression.
This is what moved me. A room full of teachers expressing themselves, “Running here running there, excited, / hardly able to stop.” It was such a gift to be in the presence of that reminder of how important writing is for everyone-not just for kids in school and for writers, but for all of us.
As we closed our session, and took time to share with each other either some bit of writing or what we gained from the three days, I was struck by the courage of each individual in the room to share a bit of themselves. Some read heart-full pieces that I’m relatively certain they didn’t see themselves writing before last Tuesday while others just expressed gratitude for the reminder that there is always time to write, even if it isn’t a complete piece…just to put the words to the page. One teacher, an experienced fiction writer, found herself writing in poetry much of the week (bestill my poet’s heart!) and was so please to have discovered a new outlet for her writing.
I found myself humbled in their presence and so grateful for their willingness to fully participate and even more for what they have inspired in me—a resolution to continue writing and a zeal with which to return to my classroom as I work to craft meaningful writing experiences for the young adults soon to become the newest members of my writing community.