My mother told the story of her brother—who was something of a character and one of my favorite people—getting a school assignment to write a poem. His great effort was remembered by the family for years.
Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
Flush the toilet
When you get through.
Uncle Bobby was not much of a scholar.
Have you ever written anything? Ever thought about writing a book? How about being a writer for a living?
Most people I know wrote just enough in school to keep from failing. And promptly swore off ever writing anything again.
These days, it seems that anything more than a 250-character email, text, or tweet is just not done. We have lost the art of letter writing, much to the detriment of ourselves. (That’s for another blog post.) And yet there is something about writing that many people still find to be enviable, even mysterious.
Ernest Hemingway once quipped: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” How romantic and discouraging. It sounds so painful and magical.
But while most of us will never be great writers, I really do believe that anyone can be an adequate writer, even a good writer with some willingness to work at it and learn a few things. I used to teach school, public school, at an “alternative” school, no less. Many people thought my students were the “bad” kids, and most were the ones who got into some sort of mischief at their regular school. But do not think they were dumb kids; most were like the proverbial round peg that did not fit the square hole of modern public education.
Some of those kids wrote the most amazingly original and inventive prose you can imagine. One kid in the seventh grade (yes, I suffered through a year of teaching middle schoolers. I think it was punishment for past transgresions) was the class clown, a perennial ne’er-do-well who had a reputation of making trouble. Not harmful or mean, but constantly and failing to perform his assigned tasks. And that kid wrote hilarious, often touching stories about fantastic events and people and situations.
Sometimes with older students, I would assign an original composition that had to begin with a famous first line from literature. It was a launching point for them. I could steal from Dickens (“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”), or Shakespeare (“To be or not to be.”), or even Vonnegut (“Listen. Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”).
My favorite was from Pat Conroy’s The Lords of Discipline: “I wear the ring.”
One incredibly bright kid I was privileged to teach wrote, “or does it wear me?” I may steal that for a whole novel someday.
Here is my main point: writing is not “easy,” but it’s not really that hard if you just sit down and do it. It’s almost cheating how easy editing is these days, what with computers that make corrections so relatively painless. I came along at a time when there were no computers to write with—or calculators in math class for that matter. You should write a ten-age paper on a typewriter and then find a change you need to make at page three. You find yourself thinking, Do I really need to make that change? Even though it completely alters my entire thesis?
When I told my students these tales of old timey hardship and distress, they were flabbergasted. I could conjure up for them visions of old Mr. Killman drawing pictures in the dirt or writing long tomes on slate or clay tablets. Slide rules? What are those?
I do not advise anyone to write a novel or even short story, but I am of the school of thought that believes that everyone has at least one story in them, one tale that needs to be told. And if you don’t tell it, it dies with you. If stories die with you, then you deprive you children or nieces or neighbor kids the chance to learn and grow and develop under the benefit of your wisdom.
At the very least, our children can learn from the stupid stuff we did. You know, kind of a don’t do as I did, do as I say sort of thing.
I will suggest this: try journalling. You don’t have to be formal about it, just get a notebook and start to write a few things down as they occur to you. I have lots of notebooks full of garbage, but I have one that I have maintained for years—it even has duct tape on the spine—where I write down quotes that I want to remember.