The Skype call was running out of gas. After forty minutes, the ten high school writing lab tutors looked captive, eager to escape the confines of the conference room. The writing lab director—a former student of mine—asked if there was a final question. One tutor’s hand shot into the air. She cleared her throat and said, “How has writing changed your life?” That question knocked me back on my heels. What happened to “Describe your writing process” or “Where do you get your ideas?” I was silent a moment to keep from sputtering, then ventured an answer: “Writing enabled me to travel.” That was true. Educators across the country had read my books about teaching writing and invited me to speak to teachers and conduct workshops. That travel expanded my world beyond the consolidated, rural high school where I taught. My answer, however, missed the mark. Badly.
MOVIES IN MY MIND
Although I don’t remember being read to by my parents, I do remember teachers reading to me in elementary school. Flushed after recess, I listened to their voices and saw movies in my mind. Being read to was a blessed break in the school day, and it ceased after Mrs. Lawrence in sixth grade. But in seventh grade, in the tiny school library, I discovered adventure novels about sled dogs, sports, and war. The writing of others quickened my imagination and inspired me to write my own stories. That year I was twelve, and I got hooked on writing.
My classmate Jackie and I needed to fill the time in back-to-back study halls at the end of the school day. We began to write adventures in which we cast ourselves and our friends as characters. I reveled in creating these imagined, improbable stories. In the space of one study hall period, I wrote several pages in my blue-lined, college-ruled notebook, solid ink from left margin to right with nary a paragraph. We’d read models of the genre we wanted to write. We had topic choice. We had time. The words poured out. Even if I had to drop the pen to flex my fingers now and then, the act of writing was fulfilling—a different fulfillment, certainly, from stabbing a grounder bounding down the third baseline, but making sentences, pushing forward with them to tell a story, was satisfying nevertheless. If I kept fearlessly heading down the page, one word magically led to the next.
It was linguistic wizardry. I could transform an empty page into a voice that conjured images, thoughts, plots, and emotions. That experience changed my life. Fast on the heels of the fulfilling inward experience of writing was an unexpected outward one. In addition to models, topic choice, and time, we had an audience. Jackie and I traded stories and read with glee. We passed our stories to friends sitting around us. They looked up from the page with grins. They nodded their heads. They wrote us notes. In writing our stories, we transcended the dull world of study hall. When we shared those stories—when we published them—we saw that we affected others. And we didn’t have to speak a word. Silently we wrote and then our words triggered voices in the minds of those who read what we’d written.
The experience of having an audience was invigorating, life-changing, dangerously egotistical. I admit, unabashedly, that to this day ego fulfillment is part of what drives me to write. I can’t imagine that those who write do so without a high regard for their perceptions and the possibilities of their own mind. A few years later, in that same study hall where Jackie and I wrote of triumph, loss, and heroism, I remember surfacing from an intense writing session and whispering loud enough for classmates to hear, “Call me Edgar Allan Romano.” One of my undergraduate students from China said that “writing is for catching people’s eyes.” When I have written with the intent of reaching an audience, whether preadolescent boys sitting around me or thousands of readers of English Journal, I want to catch people’s eyes. I want them to take notice and find meaning in what I’m writing and pleasure in how I’m writing it. I want them to know it was me who gave them that experience.
Such is my ego. I’ve learned to quell it when interacting with others. But in my first-blurt, trust-the-gush drafts, I seek to turn my ego loose. I am profligate on the page. Everything I might write is important. In writing, I express my me-ness and seek to be vivid, my best chance for catching people’s eyes. THE PLAYING FIELD OF COMPETITION Another undergraduate told me that when he writes, he feels “free to express what I want.” In school I sought to do that, but always with an eye on the parameters of the writing assignment and the expectations I believed the teacher had. So, I wasn’t completely free to express what I wanted how I wanted. Only after college did I pursue free expression.
I began to keep a journal and heeded Walt Whitman’s advice: “And the secret of it all is to write in a gush, the throb, the flood, of the moment—to put things down without deliberation—without worrying about style—without waiting for a fit time and place. . . . You want to catch the first spirit—to tally its truth. By writing at the instant the very heartbeat of life is caught.” I wrote without self-censorship, without the need to impress, without the concern of being graded, of sensing someone ready—even eager—to dismiss my choice of topic, to redirect my thinking, to correct my usage, spelling, and punctuation. Writing in a journal every day made me bolder with words on paper. It gave me practice trying writerly moves I was taking notice of. Journal writing helped me make sense of “important parts of my life,” as another student told me it did for her. Writing about past experiences settled me, gave me perspective, led me to understanding. Being honest in my journal allowed me to objectify my experiences, take a good look at them, especially the dark parts that had been bottled up for years, like the night of my father’s death in a car crash when two drag racers smashed head-on into his Cadillac.
As Lynn Nelson put it, I said my hurts, cried my tears, shouted my anger, and told my stories “into the healing skylight of my journal”. Journal writing was an act of inwardness. It was linguistic archeology. It required solitude, persistence, and patience. With language I recorded what I saw, explored what I thought, recreated through dramatic narrative indelible moments from my present and past. The inward act of writing, however, was also an expansive experience. It continues to be, regardless of whether I am writing in my notebook or clacking on computer keys or beginning to compose on a yellow legal pad. When I write, I am living large, working toward more insight, sharper perceptions, deeper compassion. I’m a better teacher because of writing. I’m a better man.
A WRITING STATE OF MIND
One of my long-ago high school students said that she had developed “a writing state of mind.” Writing habitually will do that to you. Little noticings, surprises both big and small, things you might forget become topics to write about. The waitress at a Cracker Barrel, for example, approached our table, a pot of coffee in each hand—one to jolt, one without kick. “You’re regular, aren’t you?” she asked. That seemed a profound philosophical question.
I jotted it on the notecard I carried in my shirt pocket; a week later I explored her question in my journal. Years ago, when our daughter was a toddler, she—like all toddlers learning language—had the perceptions of a poet. To her mind, the fountain in the middle of the shopping mall was “jumping water.” She once told me to get my pipe and blow doughnuts. One rainy day she announced that we would stay dry with the rainbrella. Because of my writing state of mind, I collected her metaphors and necessary word play in my notebook; twelve years later I wrote a poem around them. The journal, the notebook, the diary I’ve kept nearly fifty years changed my life. THE SECOND GENIUS I rarely procrastinate. Working close to deadlines unnerves me. In high school I wrote my papers two or three days before they were due. On one occasion, I reread what I’d written—so self-satisfied was I with its composition.
As I reread, however—to my dismay—I sensed gaps of meaning, flawed reasoning, awkward word rhythms. In some places, I had more to say; some sentences, I saw, were redundant; some assertions, I realized, I could clarify. With a different-colored ink pen, I leaned into the paper, crossing out words, drawing arrows to indicate new positioning of sentences and paragraphs, squeezing words between the lines, in the margins, on another piece of paper with a corresponding number in the essay so I’d remember where to put it when I made a new copy. I’d stumbled upon revision, and that changed my life.
In Language and Learning, British researcher James Britton writes of adolescents learning to write: “A large part of the incentive for the writer lies in the sharing: the value we covet for him, and that he will increasingly covet for himself as he grows older, lies in the shaping”. To this day, I don’t leave important writing to the last minute. I plan enough time to draft and then leave the words a while (two or three days works best for me). I know that when I reengage with those first words, I’ll invoke “the second genius,” as Kim Stafford calls revision.
Only then can I hope to build on the first genius, that marvelous, productive, trust-the-gush mentality I discovered at twelve years old. The deletions, additions, and rearranging are not failures. They are victories. Little victories in word work. Through the patient process of writing, I know I’ll be able to create what needs to be written. And I know that the finished product will surprise me. I’ll come to something I didn’t foresee in length and scope and depth. The second genius enables me to work toward my best thinking in the most readable rhythms of language I’m capable of shaping.
A TOUCH OF ARTISTRY
I don’t play a musical instrument. I don’t paint or sculpt or draw. I don’t throw pottery or take serious photographs. I write. With language I create essays, stories, reviews, poems, letters, journal entries. With written words I bring something into existence that began as an indelible image or a fragment of thought. I’ve learned to use written words to have a say.
I’ve learned to make time for word work to shape that saying over as many drafts as it takes to create writing worth reading by strangers. Whether the writing is a memory I’ve brought to life in a story or a radio commentary picked up by a National Public Radio station 1,600 miles away, writing gets me close to making art. That’s been a pleasure, an unexpected one. And that has changed my life.
SKYPE CALL, TAKE 2
The students’ eyes are fixed on the conference table. I take hold of the Mini Cooper mouse my wife bought me, ready to click the “end call” icon. The student asks her question, and I answer, “Changed my life? That’s not big enough.”
Through writing I forged an identity as someone who revels—even luxuriates—in working with words. Writing is akin to meditation for me. It’s helped me understand my experiences, my puzzlements, what I value, what I’ve ceased to value, what I’ve come to value. In writing I’ve been self-indulgent and wrongheaded, foolhardy and idealistic; and sometimes working with those first words has enabled me to find my way to clear thinking and generosity.
Best of all, my writing led me to a profession: teaching others to write a little better than they already do. Because of my laborious writing process, I know what my students struggle with, what they need to experience and learn, what they are capable of. If I can get students to write what matters and engage with the magic power of language, I can up the ante of what I expect of them. If I’m working well, they will up the ante for what they expect of themselves. They will take pleasure in their linguistic accomplishment.
“Writing did not change my life,” I should have told those students. “Writing gave me a life.”
This article originally appeared on The Alliance Review: Saying, Shaping, Sharing: How Writing Changed My Life