When I was newly married and my wife and I were “making” our first home, she was doing most of the making and I was doing most of the homing – partly because I’m a guy dropping the ball and blaming it on being a guy (my guilty conscience wishes to interject here that I do help with laundry, vacuuming, dishes and so on; but, alas, my wife Julie does more than her fair share; God bless her and help me!), but also because of a video game popular at that time, some sixteen years ago, a game which held me in its clutches and sucked the free time right out of me.
X-Com: UFO Defense, it was. Many still call it one of the greatest video games of all time. But that is not the point. The point is that I played the game relentlessly, found myself enthralled and addicted, wasted a couple dozen hours per week trying to save fictional people from fictional monstrous invading alien forces, neglected my wife in the process, and finally, none too soon, gave up on the game, realizing with stuporous slowness that one devoted wife is worth more than all of the imaginary universes in the… well, universe. (Notice the theme here: Love Conquers All!)
Good writing is difficult for many reasons. Let me count the ways.
1. For the most part, there’s no “one right way,” no universal standards of quality. Even the laws of grammar are forever in flux, subject to the influence of what’s currently popular in literature, in traditional media and even in social media. Sure, experience has taught us many principles that form the basis of what we now judge to be effective writing. Yet, sadly, none of us will ever earn a congratulations-you-have-arrived-at-100-per-cent-writing-proficiency badge. Language is flexible. That is its beauty, its majesty, its mystery. And its bane. In other words, writing is not math.
2. It requires endless decision making. Just when you’ve decided upon what to write, you need to decide upon which related ideas to mention. Just when you’ve decided how to begin a sentence with the PERFECT word, and what length the sentence should be, and whether its subject should come early on or later, and whether to append clauses and phrases for greater complexity, and which word will receive pride of place at the caboose, for maximum punch; just then you must do it all over again for the next sentence, only this time bearing in mind that the the new sentence must complement and/or provide contrast to the previous one. And when you’ve pinned down the JUST-RIGHT word over here, you need to pluck a new unbeatable choice over there. Paragraphs must work together. Redundancy must be weeded out. Ideas must echo and support one another. Structure must be established and maintained. And so on, and so forth, ad nauseum.
3. It reflects the writer’s soul. Because writing is an art, the web of words woven by the writer ensnares something of his or her essence. This opens a writer to judgment in a very personal way. When the relationship between writer and reader is good, there is a profound intimacy. Which is why we curl up with a good book. Which is why I feel like Stephen King and Kazuo Ishiguro and Suzanne Collins are three of my closest pals. The flip side of this dynamic is the possibility of being exposed shamefully to the world. No one wants to be rejected. But writing requires rejection. At least, sharing writing does. And, except when to clarify one’s own thinking, writing is pointless if not shared eventually. So the eighth grade students in my classes must risk rejection nearly every school day, every time I ask them to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Welcome to Literacy!
4. It requires deeply analytical thinking. Obviously, right?
And that brings me to the subject of theme, the focus of my recent lessons.
Think for a moment about the original Toy Story.
When you’re weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes… I will tell you:
And you will tell me just where I can shove it. Or maybe you’ll smack me upside the head. Because being told to loosen up is like being told not to think of a pink elephant: both directives are bound to backfire.
Yet I shall risk the shoving and smacking and tell you what I’ve learned thus far about the whys and wherefores of loosening up, for teaching has forced me to swim in seas of stress and discover how not to sink.
When I was a first-year teacher, come December I was shocked to find myself on the edge of a nervous breakdown – this despite the fact that I’d heard over and over again how terribly trying any first year in a classroom must inevitably be. But I had never known such stress. In my heyday, four out of five dentists recommended me as laid-back and easy-going (to their patients who chew gum). Even my solo trek halfway around the world to meet and pick up and bring home from Ethiopia the third and fourth additions to our family, aka our oldest and youngest sons – a trip in which I grappled with language barriers, taxis, oppressive poverty, emotional roller coasters, unfamiliar food, unusual schedules, plane ticketing snafus and sudden illness – did not compare to the stress that saddled me in that first year of teaching.
I found myself in the doctor’s office choking over my words as I feebly explained my roiling thoughts and frayed psyche, tears falling, disoriented, with no sense of Christmas in the air. How had it come to this?
To some extent it was no doubt unavoidable. My mind could never have been prepared for the demands of responding to the needs of dozens of young adults and juggling the ever-pressing responsibilities of lesson planning, grading, networking, data assessment, professional development, email wrangling and so on and so forth. But I I think that my suffering in this transitional time could have been less intense and shorter-lived.
Writer, reader, runner, teacher, father, infp, huffleclaw.