Between January 1 and June 28 of this year, I filled a pathetic grand total of 16 pages of my journal, even after my spring promise to write more. I found it hard to set aside designated time for myself to just write. There was always something more important, or more appealing going on. I brought my journal a lot of places with me – the beach, school, coffee shops, Central Park – but I never got up the courage to crack it open and face the vast emptiness of the next page.
In Sarah Kay’s poem “The Paradox,” she writes:
When I am inside writing,
All I can think about is how I should be outside living.
When I am outside living,
All I can do is notice all there is to write about
When I read about love, I think I should be out loving.
When I love, I think I need to read more.
I am stumbling in pursuit of grace,
I hunt patience with a vengeance. …
Every time I read this poem, I cannot help but think, I feel that, woman. I have a very difficult time simply being content with where I am and what I am doing in the moment.
This summer, I am teaching writing classes to sixth and eighth grade girls at my school’s annual summer camp. In preparation for the eighth grade class, which is focused on creative writing, I pulled out my well-worn copy of Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones. My senior year of high school, my writing teacher used it as the textbook for our college-level intro to writing course. I have kept a copy close at hand ever since. Goldberg explains how to “practice writing” in her book. She lays out six simple rules for writers:
- Keep your hand moving. (Don’t pause to reread the line you have just written. That’s stalling and trying to get control of what you’re saying.
- Don’t cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.)
- Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don’t even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.) I take this a step further – when I purchase a journal, I buy either a sketchbook or a journal with blank, unlined pages.
- Lose control.
- Don’t think. Don’t get logical.Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that s scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)
On our first day of class, I wrote these six rules on the board for my eighth grade ladies. We talked about them, and they had some qualms with a few of the rules.
“What if I don’t like what I write? Can’t I erase it?”
“Why would I write about something that scares me?”
"There's stuff I don't want to write about."
“You mean we don’t have to write on the lines?”
“Lose control?! I lose control every day!”
“Wait, are you going to read what we write?” (The answer to this one was "no." I make a point of inviting them to share their writing only if they want to and feel comfortable, and I do not read their journals unless they give me permission. I remember what being thirteen felt like.)
Goldberg suggests that a writer write, following these rules, for a set amount of time daily; it can be as short as five minutes or as long as an hour – depending on where the writer is in her practice. We start every class with 5-15 minutes of writing. I write a prompt on the board (Goldberg includes many ideas in her book), but I tell them they can write about whatever they want. And if their thoughts take them somewhere far away from the words on the whiteboard, I tell them to follow in their writing.
I write with them. This is probably the best teaching decision I have ever made. I forgot how freeing it is to write without purpose or inhibition. I also did not realize how healthy it is for me, as a writer, to have a group of fellow writers to hold me accountable. No matter that they are half my age. We write together, and, if we feel like it, we share our writing. The thoughts that show up in my writing are not always ones I would share with my students, and I’m sure some of the pages in their journals are ones they would never share with a teacher. But we are all practicing writing together, and the community we have formed is one where creativity is welcome and where it flourishes.
Between June 28 and today, July 5 (just one week), I have filled 10 pages of my journal. At this rate, I will have written more at the end of the one month of camp than the six months that came before it.