The thing is, sometimes there is no story to tell. Or, you have stories but they’re not ready to be told yet. The blank page does not have to be your enemy. It is not a sign of failure. It just means: Not Now.
* * *
I’ve forgotten how to talk about writing.
The last time I was really immersed in writing — in my own and in the writing of others — was in my MFA program at Goucher College. I worked part-time and lived with my parents, and was able to set aside three or four full days a week to write. Some days it poured out; other days I sat in front of a blank Microsoft Word document for hours until the floodgates opened inside of me. Either way, I had that space: the gestation period for an idea, a chapter, and my entire story was longer. I had the luxury of writing, but also not writing.
Each semester, I had guidance: four very different mentors who encouraged me, who said what they needed to say, at each stage, to get me to write. Most of the time, this simply entailed listening to me, or sending me positive comments — scribbling “yes! more of this!” in the margins of my manuscript. They told me my story was worth sharing. They reassured me I was the one who could tell it.
In “The Myth of the Real Deal,” a response to Ryan Boudinot’s piece on MFA programs in The Stranger, Jennifer Berney talks about teaching writing. She says that every student has something to say, and that “the challenge of teaching is to help them identify which of their stories need telling.”
My first mentor, who I didn’t click with so well, asked me big questions to help me find my focus. From what I recall, she gave me distance to explore, which I suppose was what I ultimately needed. My second mentor was a spiritual cheerleader of sorts, and a person I grew to trust to read the raw material I simply needed to record: to document a world through a window that would soon close. The third professor was enthusiastic like the second, yet pushed me to consider the shape of things to come. And my final mentor challenged me — and told me, amidst all that I’d written so far — that none of it mattered if I was not present in these pages. That I was the anchor of the story.
I wrote a lot of crap, and exposition, and scenes. Some of it worked. Most of it didn’t. But I was writing, moving ideas from mind to paper, actively translating my experiences. I haven’t written like that since.
* * *
For six years, I worked with a fantastic sixth grade language arts teacher in Portola Valley, a town near Palo Alto, California. I started off reading, leaving feedback on, and grading essays on the literature they read, from the epic poem of Gilgamesh to The Monkey King, and Bridge to Terabithia to The Giver to the graphic novel American Born Chinese. I love and miss this work — I learned so much, not just about curriculums and rubrics, but how eleven-year-olds respond to and think about stories and characters, and how enjoyable it is to read their writing — to see glimpses of thought and realization. When I got more comfortable working with these kids, I took small groups into the library to talk about the books they were reading, and worked one-on-one with students on their essays — helping them tease out the main idea. Pinpointing key moments in their drafts. Figuring out what the story was really about.
I recalled these experiences this weekend, at the Press Publish conference in Phoenix, where I led two writing workshops, primarily attended by new bloggers. It was the first time I’d talked about writing in front of people in quite some time, since the years in my MFA program and in that middle school classroom.
* * *
I know that writing is hard. But I was reminded that teaching writing is harder.
In my morning writing class, I talked about the importance of a writing practice — of building a habit, of carving out the space to just write. This group of bloggers stared at me as I stood behind a podium, listening to me, eager to hear my ideas. Why are they looking at me, I thought. I tell them I struggle just as much as they do, that I can go months without writing something. I say that we’re so used to typing in our WordPress dashboards, pressing “Publish,” and expecting our work to be read. To be shared. To be liked and commented on.
We first do a three-minute free write, on any topic, by hand. I mention Natalie Goldberg and my favorite book of hers — Writing Through the Bones — and that we’ll sit here together and write. I suggest not to think too much — to keep their hands moving across the page, to push through the buildup, to wipe away the mental cobwebs.
I set my iPhone timer for three minutes, clicked “start,” and sat on the ledge with my notepad — its first few pages filled with numbers from my recent tax return. On a fresh page, I scribble that I’m anxious, that I’m a phony, that I don’t belong up here. And then I think of Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird, and the little Dr. Seuss-like creature that Lamott describes — it lives inside me, deep within my gut, and hands individual letters up to me, helping me to create sentences.
I ask myself if I need a muse to write, if I’m silly to dream of a 26-hour day to write. I wonder if it’s in me, this thing called writing.
Our three minutes is up. We don’t share our work aloud. I ask if anyone free-writes by hand like this regularly, and no one raises their hand. I tell them, and I remind myself, that we should allow ourselves this private time to write. That despite a life that unfolds on the internet, we can still write with no intent to publish.
* * *
In my two workshops, I received a variety of questions. Do I have something to say? Is my personal story worth telling? And I generally said, yes, you have something to say, and yes, you have a story that people would like to hear. Some people had fascinating backgrounds — one woman studied hands, and shared a lovely short piece about how the closed fist of a newborn held the secret of life. Another writer shared a draft on Medium with me — a longread about his spiritual journey, which I read on the plane ride home. It reminded me of a comment my younger cousin Terrence recently said to me about the mystical beauty of Sedona — God created the Grand Canyon, but lives in Sedona — and so somehow I feel I was meant to read the piece.
I suppose that’s what I enjoyed the most: connecting with a person, even in a quick encounter, and creating that temporary frictionless space for our ideas to breathe and expand. We all have stories, though sometimes we’re not sure how to tell them. I love thinking about the journey, the lifespan, of a story itself — passed on from mind to mind, reader to reader, morphing in ways the writer might not intend. I read one version of a story, digest it in a way that only I can, scribble notes in its margins, and return this feedback. And in some tiny way, I help it grow or take form — and shine a light on the parts of a page that the writer has not seen, or cannot see.
As I write some lengthy email responses to writers who shared drafts with me, I remember the challenges of teaching writing. I’ve never been formally trained to teach, and I am disappointed in myself when I realize I’m not as well-read as I’d like, or am unable to offer concrete takeaways — move this section here, cut this out entirely — especially if I sense that’s what they want. It’s one of the reasons why I refuse to be called an “expert” on writing, or on anything, because I’m on the same journey as these writers.
Imposter syndrome follows me here, naturally. But still, I’ve received kind messages from people who said they left the conference — and my sessions — feeling inspired. That the hour or two they spent with me made them think. And for those who read this blog, you know I like to just think. To marinate in the process. So, I’ll take it.