The only word my writing-atrophied brain can muster as I stare at the blank page and remember with clarity one of the main reasons I walked away from my former career as a writer and editor. Here’s the thing: Writing and I have a love/hate relationship. Truth be told, she stresses me the hell out.
As a journalist, I used to spend my days marveling at an overachieving co-worker who could easily throw down 2,000 words while humming show tunes and decimating an entire bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. I really hated that guy … mainly because he never shared the damn Doritos.
Yeah, I was a bit jealous of the mocking keyboard clatter preceding his daily office proclamation: “Story is filed. I’m outta here.” Ok, Doritos Boy, we get it! You’re a fluent writer!
For me, words have always been a challenge. I can get there, but only with a great deal of effort. Life as a writer and editor was a laborious, painful process — comparable to being poked in the eye with a dinner fork.
And so, after years of staring at blank screens while hoping the writing gods would somehow smile on upcoming deadlines, I decided to walk away. Far, far away. Since leaving the world of journalism about ten years ago in order to pursue a career in education, I have avoided writing at all costs.
And now I’m back. Ugh. And Yay! And ugh. Remember, love/hate relationship?
Why now? Two reasons.
1. I have a big mouth and I can’t stop talking (those of you who know me can attest). I have a lot to say about reading and writing instruction as well as the current state of the U.S. public education system, and I need an outlet to release some of this steam before my head explodes.
2. I’m a hypocrite. I preach about living a writer’s life in order to create classroom writing cultures and support student growth, but I tend to avoid what I know is a calling in an attempt to free myself of the accompanying anxiety (you would be anxious too if you had practically zero Cool Ranch Doritos).
Don’t get me wrong; I write. A lot. And I read even more. But my musings are mainly random notes here and there with little focus and no attention to detail. My writing has no audience. It’s easy. Safe. No risk. Just the way I like it.
It was the week before Thanksgiving break when the Great Awakening arrived on my doorstep (pays to be a Prime member… Amazon will deliver anything these days).
I had been working with a particular student for a couple of weeks as he slogged his way through the writing process. His notebook is currently bursting at the seams with memories and entertaining stories, but he lacks confidence and struggles with grammar and mechanics, so he tends to avoid anything beyond the pre-writing phase of the writing process.
Here’s a snippet from our last writing conference before the Thanksgiving break:
Me: Hey, looks like you’re making a ton of progress on this piece! Way to go! So what are you working on today as a writer?
Student: *sighs. Mr. Victory, I just don’t even know. It’s all just so… messy. And I feel like I’m not very good at it and I get nervous about what to work on. I mean like how do you know what to do next? There are just so many things!
Me: Have you ever played in the dirt?
Student: Huh? I mean, yeah, I guess so.
Me: When I was a kid, my friends and I would sometimes take our Hot Wheels outside and create little Hot Wheels cities in the dirt. Sometimes we would get water to make mud so we could build walls and ramps. It was so messy but so much fun.
Student: *laughs. That sounds awesome.
Me: Oh, it was! And ya know the best part? We didn’t care about getting dirty or messy. It was so much fun that we just played and created and knew we could always clean up later. Writing is the same. It’s messy. And guess what? That’s actually what makes it so amazing. You can play in the dirt of your notebook and try different things, and if those things don’t work out, you can clean the mud off and start over.
Student: *sighs again and shifts from listening to looking at a page in his notebook. I know what I want to work on! Dialogue! This part doesn’t sound like a real person talking. Thank you, Mr. Victory!
And that was the moment I heard with clarity the annoying little voice inside my head whisper, “Well, crap.” The message was loud and clear. My fears were no different than my student’s. Both of us, for different reasons, were afraid of the process — afraid of failing, afraid of rejection, afraid of exposing our weaknesses.
We wanted perfection. Nothing else would do. The world simply could not be allowed to witness the struggle. And how could we possibly experience a sense of creative joy under the watchful eye of such a demanding critic? In short, fear had replaced flow.
One week later, I sit with my laptop hammering out this first offering. I’m not sure how often I will post or where this will lead, but I’m excited and thankful to this student for lighting a fire under his teacher.
FYI: I deleted the closing paragraph and replaced it with this one. The original was a plea to forgive the aforementioned rust and bear with me as I work through the kinks of a 10-year writing hiatus. But I don’t need to apologize. After all, I’m just playing in the dirt.