Thanks to All My Students

Photo by Dan Deschenes
Photo by Dan Deschenes

In one of my writing classes last week, a long-time student, Vicki, made two comments that inspired this post. First, she talked about a new writing exercise she was practicing. She writes for five minutes without stopping, and everything she writes is one sentence. “It’s not that hard once you get used to it,” she said. I haven’t tried it yet, so I’ll have to take her word for it. But I can see the benefits of such an exercise.

One, doing a writing exercise at any time of the day, but particularly before you start working on whatever writing project is on your desk at that moment, can help clear your head, get rid of issues that might be nagging at you, and warm up your creativity muscles. Like stretching before a sweaty workout. The other is that by making your five minutes’ worth of writing one sentence, you’re forcing your brain to think sequentially, but also to make connections that you might otherwise miss. For example, you start writing about your aunt Mary, yet as you begin running out of things to say, you realize that Aunt Mary’s habit of picking bits she didn’t like out of her salad reminds you of how your son used to pick mushrooms off his pizza, claiming he would never eat fungus, which then might lead you to a memory of the stunning yellow of chanterelles growing alongside a forest path. Hmm, that was fun. I’m going to have to try this exercise.

The other point Vicki made was that she is now writing every day. She doesn’t have much time, and she is struggling with this novel—her first—but she aims for a page a day and hits that target. “It’s so much easier,” she said, “to get back into the book and remember what I was writing if I’m doing it every day.”

“Yes!” I said. “Touch it every day.”

Which is what I wrote back in March 2015. I had just read The Art of Slow Writing by Louise DeSalvo and wrote a blog post about the book. Among her many terrific pieces of advice, there’s this vital one: “Touch the work every day.” I periodically remind my students and clients—and myself—of this, and regret that we all in fact need the reminder. For too many of us, writing is fit around the edges of our overly busy lives.

So my thanks to Vicki for the new writing exercise and the reminder that we all need to be writing, not necessarily more, but certainly more often.

Actually, I have to give thanks to all my students. I titled this blog “What the Teacher Learned in Class” for good reason. For example, one of my students has an excellent eye for overblown writing, for unnecessary prepositional phrases, for clunky words. His revision suggestions are helpful to all of us, not just the student whose work we are discussing. Another student uses her pen to great advantage, striking out details and explanations that are redundant, as well as rearranging paragraphs for greater impact. All of my students, of course, bring to class their disparate knowledge, both the book-learned and the life-experience varieties, and I learn something new in each class, either from the writings or the oral discussions. In the past few years, I’ve been plunged into the school busing crisis in Boston in the midseventies; I’ve hung out on an Israeli kibbutz in 1964, picking potatoes in one-hundred degree heat; I’ve been saddened watching an eccentric, lovable woman literally lose her mind to senility; and I’ve been enraptured by descriptions of life in Southeast Asia as the Vietnam War was just beginning.

Of course, reading published works does the same thing. We learn from what we read, and we often choose what to read because of what we want to learn. But I get to hang with the authors and talk with them about what they know and what it was like to write about those things. And what they in turn learned in the process of writing. Every class is invigorating and creatively stimulating. So, thanks to all my students for making my job so fun.

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In which I blog about the days I write and the days I don’t write; about teaching about writing; about reading (which is never enough); and occasionally about music, because sometimes a three-minute song can tell as good a story as a novel.

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