friday mornings are sacred. friday mornings are when i burrow deep into my soul, poke around, see what’s percolating. i learned a few years ago to pencil in friday mornings, ink them in is more like it. as certainly and solidly as if it’s a trip to the dentist, or a date with the pope, i scribble “write” on my friday morning calendar. that means i’ve devoted the hours to whatever unfolds here. that means it matters — to me, anyway.
but this friday morning i’ve surrendered my sacred time, turned it over to a gaggle of kids — high school kids — who want to learn how to write. how to write from the heart, specifically. so i’m writing this on thursday afternoon. i’m pausing from the making of outlines, the stacking of papers, the pulling tomes from my shelf, so i can lay out the words that will find their way to you come friday morning.
come friday morning, i’ll be at the head of a class — a workshop filled with 78 kids in the first round, and a second session with 32 seats now claimed — and i’ll be trying to impart a few things about the magnificent art of writing. i’ll ask, first, why it matters, why finding and telling the truth is essential to not just the whole lot of us as a republic, a civilization, but why it matters to each of us as living, breathing, heart-pounding human beings. human beings who know what it is to grieve or to doubt; to thrust our arms in the air, expression of joy; to question, to ponder, to stumble toward illumination. at its best, its holiest, writing allows us to slip inside someone else’s story. to understand their loneliness, their heartache, their triumph or tragedy.
we write to lean into communion, to abridge the abyss.
which brings us to craft. to the “how” of the sacred equation. we’ll peek inside the bag of writerly tools, pull out a few, try them on for utility and maybe even capacity for magic.
all week i’ve been pounding away at the keyboard, typing up thoughts; poring through pages and pages, culling the very best musings i could find on the subject of writing, writing straight from the heart. i’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the blessing of teaching. of finally reaching the point in a long life of doing one thing with unswerving focus — devotion, defined — day after day, year after year, and finally realizing you do know a thing or two worth turning around and passing along to the folks coming up behind you. i’ve considered the moral imperative. and the miracle of being in a room, strolling up and down the rows of desks, watching the gleam in the eyes begin to turn on, to brighten.
i’ve felt my heart skip a beat at the thought of connecting. of being in a room where the number of years on the planet does not matter. where we connect, writer to writer, because we were born, some of us, with a heart that beats to the rhythm and power of poetry, with a deep-down knowing that story is, after all, the great connective tissue, the one best hope for, well, nothing short of peace on earth, and the particular soul-soothing balm that comes from knowing you’re not all alone in the end.
so while i shuffle off to room 301 at new trier east high school, that storied hall of secondary learning nestled along chicago’s north shore, i’m leaving you perhaps my very favorite of seven handouts, a glorious swatch of thought from the writer Colum McCann, author of Thirteen Ways of Looking (Random House). McCann’s “Letter to A Young Writer,” instruction worth etching onto a wall of your house or your heart, is the 24th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, an annual prize for a short-story collection published in english and in the u.s. during a calendar year.
here’s McCann, advice to a writer — young or old or anywhere in between:
“Do the things that do not compute. Be earnest. Be devoted. Be subversive of ease. Read aloud. Risk yourself. Do not be afraid of sentiment even when others call it sentimentality. Be ready to get ripped to pieces: It happens. Permit yourself anger. Fail. Take pause. Accept the rejections. Be vivified by collapse. Try resuscitation. Have wonder. Bear your portion of the world. Find a reader you trust. Trust them back. Be a student, not a teacher, even when you teach. Don’t bullshit yourself. If you believe the good reviews, you must believe the bad. Still, don’t hammer yourself. Do not allow your heart to harden. Face it, the cynics have better one-liners than we do. Take heart: they can never finish their stories. Have trust in the staying power of what is good. Enjoy difficulty. Embrace mystery. Find the universal in the local. Put your faith in language—character will follow and plot, too, will eventually emerge. Push yourself further. Do not tread water. It is possible to survive that way, but impossible to write. Transcend the personal. Prove that you are alive. We get our voice from the voices of others. Read promiscuously. Imitate. Become your own voice. Sing. Write about that which you want to know. Better still, write towards that which you don’t know. The best work comes from outside yourself. Only then will it reach within. Restore what has been devalued by others. Write beyond despair. Make justice from reality. Make vision from the dark. The considered grief is so much better than the unconsidered. Be suspicious of that which gives you too much consolation. Hope and belief and faith will fail you often. So what? Share your rage. Resist. Denounce. Have stamina. Have courage. Have perseverance. The quiet lines matter as much as those which make noise. Trust your blue pen, but don’t forget the red one. Allow your fear. Don’t be didactic. Make an argument for the imagined. Begin with doubt. Be an explorer, not a tourist. Go somewhere nobody else has gone, preferably towards beauty, hard beauty. Fight for repair. Believe in detail. Unique your language. A story begins long before its first word. It ends long after its last. Don’t panic. Trust your reader. Reveal a truth that isn’t yet there. At the same time, entertain. Satisfy the appetite for seriousness and joy. Dilate your nostrils. Fill your lungs with language. A lot can be taken from you—even your life—but not your stories about your life. So this, then, is a word, not without love, to a young writer: Write.”
what words of wisdom would you impart to a starting-out writer, or starting-out thinker, intent on employing a very big heart?
up above, a few of the books i’m hauling along to writerly school. vivian gornick, donald hall, mary oliver, leslie jamison, and alice laplante, among the bound volumes.
Oh what a great day for New Trier High School! What lucky kids. And you will be right smack in your element! . You don’t even sound one bit apprehensive! Don’t forget your lunch 🙂 xoxo
i was actually excited. i think i could love teaching. especially teaching kids who are hungry to learn….
I guest lecture on “Capitalism and the Political Process” each semester at Marquette. It is an LSD flashback to undergrad, as well as teaching people close to the age of my own children, As you say, do something for 30’years and you might just know a thing or two worth imparting to the next crowd coming up!
Hope you had a blast at New Trier today,
i could definitely NOT lecture on capitalism and political process, but i love that you do. it is indeed a lovely feeling to know deep down that you have at least one bit of wisdom worth imparting.
Oh, you are SO brave to teach HIGH SCHOOLERS. Yikes! Pray it was a blessed time for you, as I KNOW it was for them. Anytime people can be in your orbit, they will spin off into their own better loved and prepared and open-minded and open-hearted. Good for you, bam! Loved your words here and Colum McCann’s. Thank you for both. xoxo
you are too sweet. high schoolers feel like native landscape. i loved the ones, especially, who looked up with such all-absorbing eyes…..i am so delighted colum’s words resonated for you. me too. xox
I LOVE “Letter to a Young Writer” and intend to pin a copy of it to my inspiration board immediately!
Oh, those lucky students at New Trier East! You’re bringing them your own effervescent wit and wisdom as well as your deep love of the craft. What a gift to them! You’re also lavishing them with the genius of two of my own personal favorites: Donald Hall and Mary Oliver. Oh, to be a wee mouse in that room, to feel with you the power and beauty and magic of words!!
My friend, this post has made me ridiculously happy. Thank you! xoxo
McCann’s wisdom is super-packed. i begged the students to please — even if they read nothing else in the stapled packet — read the Colum letter. i promised it would stick with them long after our workshop. and i’m so glad it’s already found its way to your inspiration board. or commonplace book. xox
Hi – Long time reader, first time post. I would have packed Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” (can you tell high schoolers about “sh*tty first drafts”?) and Stephen King’s “On Writing” (great book even though his novels are not to my taste). And I would tell them that ” ‘Hobby writers’ say they want to write; real writers write, in fact, are compelled to write, as they are compelled to breathe.” Never underestimate high school students…when I was a senior, my English teacher introduced me to the practice of journaling and ever since I have brought forth what is deep inside through the pen and onto paper.
“brought forth what is deep inside….” amazing how that works, isn’t it? i think i read stephen king’s “on writing” a long time ago. need to go track down. thank you for the reminder. and the post! and thank you for being a long time reader. i never have a clue who is reading…..it’s always a gift to discover….
really want to be one of those students…..