Again, I realize it has been a hot minute since I sat myself down on the well-worn and much-replacement-needed carpet between my couch and coffee table to write.
It’s hard to know what to write about sometimes, I said with sympathy to a young one in tears today over an all-school writing assignment. Today was plan and draft day. Yesterday, classes discussed what they might choose to write about, using the power of the collective to brainstorm topics they might write about. Some had ideas. Others couldn’t commit. And others insisted that they didn’t know anything about anything.
This is the part where kids get stuck. Gifted kids can get stuck just after the words “writing prompt” come out of their teacher’s mouth. What’s the topic? Do I know anything or enough about it to write something that makes sense? What if I don’t know anything? What if I know a lot? What if it’s my favorite thing and I know everything there is to know and have very strong opinions about why it’s important for people to understand what a big deal this thing is?
What if it’s not perfect?
When I teach writing, I ask kids who their audience is (or who it might be–they may change their mind after they get started!) and why they’re bothering to write at all. Responses to these questions begin with “you” and “Because you are making me.” We write those things at the top of the page so we remember who we’re writing for and why we’re writing to begin with. Gradually, as we build trust, their audience becomes “the city planning people,” and their purpose transforms into “what they’re doing to our open space is horrible and will have lasting impacts on wildlife and our neighborhoods,” the page dotted with tears of rage and hurt because what if they won’t listen?
A long time ago a teacher I admired noted that writing is just another way to communicate, and it’s important to identify those two things, audience and purpose, even if they may change as you write, just like we would in conversation. Topics and the tone of a conversation change depending on who we’re with and what we’re sharing. I wouldn’t discuss my latest true crime obsession with a parent while giving a tour of our school. I wouldn’t share my mini-TED talk on educational philosophy while having a romantic dinner at a nice restaurant with my person. The parent would think I was nuts and reconsider our school as a place for their child and my person would roll his eyes and wish I’d stop talking and go back to binge-watching The West Wing.
Young gifted writers have a vast collection of interests, a variety of opinions, and volumes of stories to share…but they get stuck when they’re asked to pick something and just write. So they tear up and sniffle. Rip the page. Use the page to create an origami owl…or a bat…or a dinosaur with big teeth. Draw and make patterns on the lines. Write IDK in a thinking web. Cover the page in crocodile tears and eraser marks…
And they ask, “How can I choose an audience or purpose if I have no idea what I’m going to write? I don’t want to be wrong!”
Older gifted writers have the same problem sometimes. We have so much to say about so many things…what if the one we commit to is the wrong one? And what if we commit to one and then write it wrong–targeting the wrong audience or with the wrong purpose?
So we open and shut the tab (often the only tab that ever gets shut) for our blog, our poem, our op-ed, our conference session proposal, our diary entry, our reflection on the day, the grocery list or to-do list… Sometimes staring at a blank page is better than committing to a word…because one word begins a flood of others that rush onto the page eventually requiring revision, editing, saving for later, or removing altogether (and then you feel bad about removing them because they mattered too). And that leads to having to DO something with them all…hitting send or publish or save or print or submit.
And then they’re out there..where they can be judged.
I admire the hell out of stand-up comedians when they’re just starting out and have no street cred. They take big risks standing up on the stage under the hot lights with a glass or bottle still somewhat full of liquid courage in one hand hoping that someone will laugh..or at least snicker..to grant permission to the rest of the group to do the same. They clasp the microphone in their other hand praying to something greater than themselves that no one will groan…yawn…or throw something.
It’s the judgment that kills us both, the writer and the performer, sending us spiraling into the land of self-doubt, negative self-talk, and hopelessness that we’ll never be the communicator we should be. And so we stop altogether.
Now imagine being 7 or 11…or 15…with adults holding a big chunk of your self-worth in their green or purple pen. Wouldn’t you be unwilling to risk it?
When we approach writing as a process during which we aren’t judged for what we share or how we choose to share it, we’re likely to be willing to take that risk over and over again, improving our craft, experiencing the process willingly, and seeking out feedback so we can grow in our practice as writers. Begin with praising their ideas, their risk-taking, their excitement to share their thoughts. Talk about the work that writers do, how they choose words, and rechoose them, moving them around the page and experimenting with their order. Share drafts of your own writing–you’re a writer too–and demonstrate what it is to be vulnerable before other writers. Celebrate the sentence. The powerful conclusion. The perfect word to illustrate exactly what they want to say. Play with cadence and emphasis and complexity of language. Writing is music, equations, experimentation, physics, performance, art…
All this, says the writer who has thousands of things to say and hasn’t found the courage to commit to a single word.