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why we write

Each morning my students write in journals for ten or fifteen minutes. I often have a prompt on the board when they come in, but it is understood that prompts can be ignored. The real goal is simply to begin writing and keep their pens moving. Sometimes I can see the struggle of it in the slump of their shoulders, the furrowed brows, the faraway look of the eyes: I don’t have anything to say, my mind is blank, I’m tired, I’m bored, I’m not in the mood to reveal myself even to myself.

A masked face is often metaphorical: his face was a mask of envy, she wore a mask of pain. In the classroom this year, a masked face is no metaphor. Everyone is literally half-covered. And yet, we still have our metaphorical masks, too - the ways we try to come across that aren’t entirely true to us, the stories we don’t yet tell because we haven’t found the words or the time or the stamina to do all that excavating.

Some days I do think of writing as an archaeological pursuit - things to dig up, brush off, and examine from every angle. Artifacts show up at the dig that are utterly mysterious. What in the world could this have ever been used for? Other days, I think of writing as a gardener might, a matter of sifting through composting piles of thought and memory. Some experiences compost more quickly than others, beginning the break-down process before they even leave the (poorly named, and in this instance, metaphorical) vegetable crisper. Other experiences are more like that orange peel I composted three months ago; it will be a long while before I can do anything with it.

Occasionally, I’ll look up and see many students completely absorbed, finishing a page and moving to the next, oblivious of time. Those moments of flow are a gift.

As a writer, I am all too familiar with both furrowed brow and much less frequently, flow. Today, before finally beginning this blog, I procrastinated in a dozen ways. I walked around, I called one of my sons, I took a walk, I listened to a podcast that I hoped would inspire me, I had a snack, and then a second cup of coffee. Sometimes writing feels nearly impossible.

Just keep going, I’ll urge my students when they’re feeling this way. Don’t edit yourself, don’t judge. Allow your thoughts to flit from one thing to another if that’s what they want to do. Over time, you might find some patterns in the things your mind wants to explore. You might want to write about the same thing a dozen different ways. You are not beholden to anything you write. Write and write and then see what feels most true right now in this moment.

When I can, I write with my students. I want them to see me struggling to keep my pen going along with theirs, trying as Joan Didion described in her essay, “Why I Write,” to pen my way into knowing what I think and why I think it. Sometimes it is truly only in the act of slowly and painfully putting words on paper that I figure out what’s really on my mind.

When I think back to my own experiences as a student, I realize I knew nothing about my teachers. One of the elements of our Radically Reimagined Relationships framework that resonates most with me is the conviction that the strongest relationships in classrooms are reciprocal. Boundaries, of course. But we are allowed to know each other as people.

Writing with my students gives me a natural way of revealing parts of myself. When our writing period ends, I always ask if anyone wants to share, and if I’ve written with them, I try to find a part to read out loud - something that’s genuine and imperfectly phrased. It’s hard not to edit and not to judge while writing; I want to model that I mean it.

Along with a fair bit of mundane information, I learn substantive things from this daily practice that I wouldn’t otherwise know. It makes it easier for me to find connections with my students so that when we have a moment to chat, they don’t feel like they’re having a formal conversation with a great-aunt they’ve met once.

They do know I read their journals, of course, and I sometimes make comments in the margins. Occasionally, a student will write “No Comments” at the top of the entry and that’s important, too. It’s the written version of asking someone to just listen. I recently tuned into to an episode of the Hidden Brain podcast, “Where Happiness Hides.” Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky noted that writing about negative experiences in a journal can help the unhappiness we are feeling fade more quickly. Her finding resonates with my lived experience: the act of writing things down helps me corral negative feelings so that they don’t just rampage about untethered, attaching to all the random moments they meet.

In her book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott sums up how I feel about writing:

Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

I don’t know if my students feel the same way…yet, but I know writing gives them a few moments a day when they are free to dispose of their metaphorical, if not their literal, masks.

photo credit: Wix

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