Being a specialist in teaching writing, writer identity, emotions and writing, and writing research, I ask that question a LOT when I work with any group of people. I have asked it of college freshmen, kindergarteners, and students at every stage in between. I have asked it of beginning teachers and classroom veterans, of doctoral students and senior professors. I have asked people in school, in Sunday school, in the woods, and even by the pool. And for all of those groups of people, across all of those times and places, if the group is new to me, the answer to “any writers here?” is almost always “no.”
Most folks keep both their hands and their gaze down.
Some folks give an emphatic, “No! I hate writing!”
Some folks raise a timid hand for yes, then lower it as they see nobody else is.
Lots of folks ask or tell what “counts” as being a writer.
The older they get, the fewer writers seem to be in the room. Younger kids will say they’re writers if their teacher has been saying it. (and how I love those teachers!) Older ones will say it, but will often qualify it, like “well, I write, but I’m not a writer-writer; I’m a kid.” With teens and adults, maybe one or two in a room usually will claim the label “writer.” These often either journal regularly or have published something.
Lots of teens and adults say with regret, “I used to be.”
Sometimes someone brave says, “I want to be.”
A lot of my work is about helping all these people (and their teachers!) get from feeling like non-writers who can’t write or hate writing to feeling like writers who can write and do write, even if they also hate writing. We build confidence and stamina, we learn to find and grow ideas, and we learn how to work in a writing community. If we keep at it, we learn to live with the difficulty that never really goes away (writing is hard!).
But today was different.
Today I visited a group of pre-kindergarteners I had never met. We gathered on the carpet, and like always, I asked the question. “Are there any writers here today?”
I blinked, and every hand in the room was up. Intrigued, I asked them to point to any writers around them. Many of course pointed to me– I had been introduced as a real author! But then, those small and pointy fingers started to move. One child pointed at another. A third child pointed at herself. Children pointed at the ones across the rug from them. A teacher pointed with all her fingers, spreading them like jazz hands aimed all over the carpet. Pretty soon fingers were waggling and twirling, and a few whole arms swung around heads, pointing at any human in their paths!
What will the anthropologists that visit us from space make of it all?
What will they make of our face masks… protection from a virus, or just adornments for our mouths, like an heirloom brooch or cheap flashy earrings?
What will they make of all these words on our t-shirts: Coke, Obama/Biden ‘08, Penn State, IZOD, 6th Annual 5k Race, It’s 5 o’clock somewhere!? Will they see advertisements, souvenirs? Or perhaps holy creeds, or clan-identifying garb? Or will they think they’re our names, like the name on a dog’s collar?
What will they make of the braces on my teeth? Will they know they were good for my teeth, badly needed and the best our age has? Or will they see a weird fashion, like big plumes on hats, or some kind of punishment for a gossip or a liar?
What would they make of the stack of books on my table? A true crime story, a feminist memoir, a history of the Maya, a novel about moms, a book of crossword puzzles, an empty journal. Will they look like instruction manuals? Orders from above? History or philosophy, of my culture or someplace else?
And what of me? Will they see me as a writer, teacher, mother and friend? As smart and strong and beautiful, blossoming? Or as a crone, or a symbol, as very young or very old? Oh, a priestess!
Maybe they’ll find our museums, but with all their labels worn away. Maybe they’ll have watched TV en route, like Mork. Or was it Alf?
I’ve looked at artifacts of Ancient Rome, a museum of modern art, and Mayan ruins in the same week, and I have questions!!
Which of the ones folks know is me? The one who writes, a lot, boldly? The one who has three books in progress but works on none? In one place I’m a leader, in another, behind. Among teachers, an author and friend; among academics, someone who had potential. Or still does? Senior colleague or deadwood? I can’t say.
To a regular person (do I know any of those?), in a regular town (not my college town of super-people), I’m a person who has written a book. Ok, four of them. An Author.
Which of the ones folks know is me? The one whose kids skip grades? Who throws good parties, or volunteers at church or school? Or one who cries, overwhelmed, that she can’t do it until the laundry is put away? And the laundry can’t be put away because it’s piled up; it’s un-beginnable. And I can’t wash laundry until laundry is put away, and I can’t tidy up with all this laundry everywhere, and I can’t work with everything so untidy, and I can’t tidy because I have too much work, and I can’t work because I’m too overwhelmed, and, and, and. That one? And did I take my meds today?
The teacher-writer? The full professor? The ex-wife? Wayward daughter? The program lead, the one who forgot, the committee chair, the fuckup? The girlfriend? The single mom, the MILF, the middle-aged, the grey? The extra ten pounds, the “hx hysterectomy,” the grumpy, the short kid, the bookworm, the blonde? Yes, that’s my real color, no highlights, no makeup. No filter. Except when I give in to wanting a filter. And on Zoom. Every professor deserves a damn Zoom filter.
Which one is me? The wounded kid or this take-no-shit feminist? The liberal, the radical? The Christian, the Sunday school teacher, the mom bringing cupcakes? High test scores, or self-hatred? ADHD or genius? Metal head or choir singer? Optimist?
A light under a bushel, or a fucking volcanic eruption of Big Feelings?
I had a magical friend who gave me the best gift when I was away at summer grad school in Vermont (camp for adults!), missing my female partner and sleeping with a man who didn’t deserve me. (He would write me, five years later, only to learn that by then I had married):
“Anne,” she proclaimed. You’re allowed to be complex.”
Why is it that all my best writing ideas happen when I’m driving a car? I don’t even like driving.
It’s been like this for as long as I could drive. Wait… it’s been like this for as long as I could write. When I’m cleaning, or walking, or driving, I have so many ideas. And they are all so good! But of course I’m doing something, and I don’t write them down, and I don’t remember them when I might write them down. And I’m no beginner, so I’ve learned from my forgetting, and now I often make a voice memo or tell Alexa or take a note on my notes app or the back of my hand.
Later, when I sit down to write, I look at those notes and forget what I meant. Or I remember, but the ideas seem much dumber than I remembered. Notes or no, when I’m sitting with my open notebook or at the keyboard, I hate everything I write. It feels like I have no ideas.
For so much of my teaching career, I couldn’t understand what kids meant when they said they had “no ideas.” What do you mean, no ideas? Everyone has ideas. I’m having tons right now. Brains are electrical idea cauldrons, with more ideas bubbling up than we can even grab onto and think about. At least that’s how it’s always felt to me. How can they have no ideas?
But now, having found myself feeling I had no ideas and even saying I had no ideas, I have some ideas about ideas.
I now understand my writers, kids and adults and basically everyone who’s felt they had no ideas, much better. When they say they have no ideas, they mean one of at least these two things. One, they have ideas, but they’re like the ones I make in my notes: they seem less good now, and the writer becomes afraid of going with them, for fear of looking stupid. This isn’t a writing problem, or an ideas problem, it’s a guts problem. I know this one well.
Two, they haven’t actually started trying to write yet, but they are scared they won’t have any ideas when they do. So, they don’t start trying. This isn’t a writing problem either, and if it’s an ideas problem, it’s not lack of ideas at all but simply a delay in ideas. And the delay is caused by fear. So, again, a guts problem.
Ideas don’t come when we’re doing nothing but waiting for ideas to come. They come when we’re doing something. Like driving, or cleaning, or walking. Or, they come when we’re doing something like…writing! Yes! We usually need to start writing in order for the ideas faucet to really turn on.
Or, clean or walk or drive or shower or something. Live. Do things. Notice how ideas come.
Then, the guts problem. If you don’t have the guts to go with the ideas that surely come, think on this: what other ideas do you have? Probably none except for the ones that you do have. So, guts or no… might as well go with those.
By the way, when I opened this Post window and started typing, I had no idea what I would write. I remembered having some good ideas while driving this afternoon, but they didn’t seem so good after all. I sat doing nothing. Finally I started typing. And here we are!
Before that, I wrote with a group of teachers, all tired from a long day, a long winter, a long year, all brave and committing to write together.
Before that, I quickly ate the chicken with peanut sauce, brown rice, snap peas and potstickers that I had made. On my son’s plate was just the chicken, plain. On my daughter’s plate was just the potstickers, plain.
Before that, I drove my son home from robot club in the fading daylight. My son explained about technical diagrams and quizzed me hard about a video game taking place in a house.
Before that, I bought a snowblower from a neighbor. It’s only me, I said, and it’s too much to shovel. We wished together for a robot that you could just send out to clear your snow on a cold morning.
Before that, I was in my house, with no video games or robots or anything. It was quiet in the house but noisy in my head.
I wrote tonight.
Note: The “before that” is a fun and easy-entry way to capture a slice of life. I learned it from my friend onathought, who undoubtedly learned it from another teacher.
I wish someone had told me years and years ago: It is not only OK, it is a gift to possess no authority or expertise whatsoever.
Sure, in areas of life in which I am the responsible party, I need authority to carry out my work. And I’ve spent a good chunk of my professional life thinking hard about the authority of teachers and teacher candidates, and how writing forges authority.
But today, I’m seeing that in some cases, authority just gets in the way. There’s a blessing in feeling so novice in a thing that one can simply show up and learn. And that’s just what I’ll be doing on Friday at a conference session I’m excited about.
At the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Annual Convention, a roundtable session (Session A.06) will focus on “Religion, Spirituality, and the Work of Literacy Education.” Tables will gather to listen and discuss very smart scholars sharing research on aspects of literacy education as it intersects with religion and spirituality. The papers are fantastic. They are wide-ranging, from histories of religious oppression expressed in English Language Arts classrooms to efforts to read more mindfully, drawing more explicitly on religious literacies, to accounts of spiritual dimensions of students’ and teachers’ engagement in English teaching and learning. My role is to provide a “response.” This is open-ended, but the typical thing to do would be to summarize the papers, synthesizing them and drawing forward key themes and an agenda for future research.
For the two weeks I have had the papers, I have been unable to write that kind of statement. Don’t get me wrong– I CAN write one and have written them. My problem isn’t lack of ideas or lack of experience of the task. It’s that I don’t think these researchers need that kind of response from me. Fact: they are ALL out ahead of me when it comes to research and theory in this area. For many of them it is a specialization; for me it is a set of curiosities. While I know how to speak authoritatively on this topic and in this setting, and could do it, the truth is that I lack any real authority with this group of people.
So. Am I stuck? No! The opposite! Because I am a learner in relationship to these people, what I can do is just be me. I can tell some stories that connect to what I have read, and I can offer my stories as question sites to which their very smart work might be applied. So, people who show up can expect to hear not a “Respondent talk” but instead a couple of funny stories, told with love, and a whole bunch of questions.
If you’re at NCTE, come to the session! It’s going to be wonderful. A.06, 9:30-10:45 am, in Room 127.
Writing is hard. That’s it; that’s the main secret I have learned in my 20 years as a writing teacher and writing researcher.
Wait, you knew that already? Of course you did. Anyone who has ever written has felt writing’s difficulty. Sometimes it’s starting at the blank page or screen, not knowing how to begin. Other times it’s sitting stuck in the middle of a sentence or a paragraph, reaching for a word that doesn’t come. Or it’s writing oneself halfway into an argument that suddenly, somewhere in the middle, breaks down. Or it’s sharing writing with a reader and finding, painfully, that you have not made yourself clear, or—more often—hesitating fearfully before sharing with a reader, or before writing at all, for fear of criticism.
Writing is filled with hard moments. Even the most skilled writers find it difficult. But the best and most prolific writers have something that many others don’t: the hard moments don’t stop them. They know that if they can face the hard moments, the moments will pass—and the bad feelings of those moments, the shame and fear and worry— will pass too. They also have a repertoire of strategies for getting through those hard moments productively: routines for settling down and getting to work, strategies for drafting and revising, and skills for eliciting helpful feedback from others and for processing the feedback they receive.
In school, however, we often pretend writing is easy, or that it should be. “OK, write for ten minutes,” we say, and we expect people simply to begin. Or we hand out prompts, and days or weeks later, we collect pieces of writing. These practices hide the difficulty of writing in ways that writers take personally. When writers struggle, they end up feeling they are doing so alone. They look around, see other students seemingly doing fine, and then they take their own difficulty as a sign that they’re doing it wrong, or worse, that they simply aren’t good writers.
Better to open up the difficulty of writing, to name its hard moments and explicitly teach how to get through those moments.
For example, when asking students to quickwrite, I do so too. As I begin, I speak aloud my feelings and what I am doing about those feelings. “Starting can be hard; I always worry my ideas will be stupid. But usually if I can just begin with something, even something stupid, I’ll get through it and it comes out OK,” I explain. And then I write with the class, in my own notebook or on the overhead screen, thinking aloud as I do it: “I’m not sure where to start,” I’ll say, “so first I’m just listing a couple of
words that come to mind… oh, ok, I like this one. Now I’m just going to write down what comes to my mind.”
Or when sending students off to write at home, I preview some of the hard moments that might come. “Here’s what I do when I find I’m procrastinating.” “Here’s what I do when I’m stuck on the first sentence.” “Here’s what I do when I find I keep switching over to Facebook when I should be writing.” “Here’s what I do when my sentences seem aimless.”
(And the main thing I do, in all of those hard moments: Take a deep breath. Write a little anyway. Cut myself some slack.)
Once we acknowledge that writing is hard, we can do something about it. We can tell ourselves helpful things, encourage ourselves to go on trying. If writing is hard for you at moments, you’re doing it right, not wrong.
“Yes, are you finding this difficult?” I ask. “ Oh good! You’re doing it right. It’s not hard because you’re stupid, or not a good writer, or in the wrong class—it’s hard because it’s hard.” Just this reassurance is often enough to get writers going. Bodies relax, shoulders descend, and jaws unclench. A few quick smiles silently say Yes, that is what I was thinking.
Our society tends to deny negative emotions, and I’m no different. As I circulate through my classroom during writing time, I sometimes catch myself turning away from a student who is struggling, as if to give him/her some privacy. I don’t want to embarrass a writer by calling attention to the problem, and so I walk by, thinking I’ll return in a moment after he’s had a chance to get started or after I see she at least has a few words down.
But on a good day, I can do better. Different hard moments call for different responses, but I am convinced that encountering another human being in a hard moment demands at least some response, even if it’s simply to stand beside the one who is struggling.
Sometimes I offer a strategy: like when the words simply do not come, and I feel stuck at a blank page, I roll my chair away form the desk, face another direction, and tell it to the wall. Literally. I talk to the wall. Or when the critical voices in my head get too loud, and I can’t write without hearing them judging every line, I sometimes start a new document and begin as if it’s a letter. Dear (name), I begin, writing to someone who will love anything I do, warts and all. Later I can change it back to the real audience. These strategies may not be groundbreaking, but to students they often feel as if they are: the teacher is recognizing and responding to the feelings of writing. Simply acknowledging that there are feelings, and that they are normal, is often enough.
It’s in the courses I teach, in the workshops I lead, in my advising of grad students, in the writing groups I facilitate or those in which I just get to participate: set aside time for writing.
“But I can’t get started.” Well, have you started? As in, opened a document and typed some words– any words into it?
“But my ideas aren’t ready.” Writing helps ready them.
“But I worry how readers will react to my writing.” Well, they’ll never react at all until you write something at all.
“But I don’t have enough time.” It’s true. You don’t.
We don’t have enough time to do every single thing we want to do, should do, mean to do. We don’t. Usually in life I try to focus on abundance. Most things we think are scarce really aren’t– there’s enough success to go around. There’s enough love to go around. There’s even usually enough money to go around, if we can work on what we mean by “enough.” But truly, there’s not enough time. Not for everything.
When I turned 35, I cried and cried. Not because I felt particularly old– at 35 I was happier than I’d ever been before, and it’s gotten better from there– but because I really was too old, objectively, for certain things. I heard that 35 was the max age to enter astronaut training. This made me sob (though I’ve since read here that it isn’t true). That door was closed! Also, I was not going to become Olympic material in any sport. Yes, I know, there are (and were) Olympians over 35, or over my age now of 43, but let’s face it: nobody starts a sport at 35 or 43 and gets Olympic good at it. And I haven’t even been getting to the gym! Time passes, and it’s one resource that does run out. So, the notion of “making time” for writing or anything else only gets you so far. We’re in these bodies, and limited in space in time.
Which is why I tell writers: make an appointment. Write down when you’ll be writing. Write it in your calendar like an appointment, and label it “writing appointment.” And then take the appointment as seriously as you take one with the dentist– you show up! They’ll charge you if you don’t!
“But I have to…[prep my courses, do grading, clean my house, catch up on email]” Ok. Do those sometime that isn’t on top of this appointment. Take yourself and your own time and goals as seriously as you take your dentist’s.
I love how Melissa Febos puts the question in this essay: Do you want to be known for your writing, or for your swift email responses? Do the things that are important to you, including answering email if that is. But keep appointments with yourself for what’s also important to you but less urgent.
All of this is to say that I ought to know how to make time for things that I deem important. I have been making time– ok, more accurately, dedicating some of the limited time I have– for writing for these eleven years, having babies and doing laundry and all the rest while writing. I’m good at this!
Which is why I struggle so much with prayer time.
I’m forever setting new plans as to when I will pray, how much, or in what manner. Sometimes it’s about better quality or different quality, but it’s always also about simply putting in the time. I do put it in, with some regularity, but things creep in to block it. And of course I pray other times, when the mood hits or over meals or in moments through the day. But I won’t lie to myself: consistent, intentional time in some quantity really does matter. As my own pastor has reminded me many times, if I want to know a person better, or love them more, I spend more time with them. The knowing and loving grows from that shared time. So, if I want to know God better, or love God better, why would I expect that to happen without spending time with God?
I’ve used some tools along the way that have increased my prayer time, making it more like an appointment. One I love is the Common Prayer app. For a while I thought I would follow the Muslim prayer times, which would combine set-time prayer with the variability of following the season/sun as they do (I never got around to that one- yet). My Muslim students use apps for this. This Examen app is good too.
But it’s not about an app, is it? It’s about me doing it.
This Lent my intentional practice has been adding prayer time. My scheme was to pray upon arrival in my office, the only quiet place I go with a door that shuts. (Seriously. I have two kids. There is NO OTHER PLACE.) I set down my bags, lay my computer on my desk, but before I open it, I set my phone alarm for 20 minutes. I close my eyes and spend that time in quiet prayer. (Yes, sometimes I peek at the phone to see how much time is left. I am a work in progress.)
Then I eat two pieces of chocolate. I do this because I read in The Power of Habit that rewards– immediate, sensory rewards– work well to initiate new habits even when the reason for setting the habit (knowing God, better health, etc.) is intrinsic and well known. Basically, I’m trying to train myself like a dog.
(At least that’s why I eat one piece of chocolate. Also, I like the idea of me and Jesus, hanging out in my office, eating chocolate at 9 in the morning. And, since he’s not hungry, at least in the bodily sense, I eat his piece too.)
It’s working, sort of. But sometimes not. Sometimes I run into someone in the hall on the way in, then walk in my office already working in my head on whatever we spoke about. Sometimes I run late with my kids in the morning, arrive at the office later in the day, and the next meeting is starting.
Sometimes I just don’t do it. I skip the appointment. So here I am saying, can I take God’s time (and my own one life God gave me) as seriously as I take a dentist’s appointment?
The most difficult thing about writing isn’t always anything in the writing, it’s actually just doing the writing at all. Forcing yourself to do it. If you don’t believe me, go visit any dissertating doctoral student’s apartment and witness the piles of clean laundry, the baking, and the art projects. Anything other than writing. Or, for a certain group of pastors, visit on Friday morning and see a house that’s been cleaned, an office that’s been organized, a well-weeded garden— and an open laptop somewhere with Facebook open instead of a sermon.
Most books about preaching focus more on the content of sermons than on how they’re made. Three-point, law-and-gospel, topical– ok, but how to get from the empty page to one of those? What writing processes? What practices— not just reading practices, but writing practices– lead you there?
Here’s what Huguley misses, though: the reason why writing is so hard is that it requires honesty and attention in the moment of invention. And that is a moment requiring so much bravery that many of us would rather do anything (even weed a garden!) rather than face it.
Anyone who has ever written has felt writing’s difficulty. Sometimes it’s starting at the blank page or screen, not knowing how to begin. Other times it’s sitting stuck in the middle of a sentence or a paragraph, reaching for a word that doesn’t come. Or it’s writing oneself halfway into an argument that suddenly, somewhere in the middle, breaks down. Or it’s sharing writing with a reader and finding, painfully, that you have not made yourself clear, or—more often—hesitating fearfully before sharing with a reader, or before writing at all, for fear of criticism.
In preaching, it’s hearing in the Gospel story the story of some situation with some parishioner, but not feeling you can speak to that too directly. It’s feeling the week’s text resonate with some aspect of your own life, but feeling (or, in some cases, knowing) that the congregation isn’t ready for that story right now, or that you’re not ready to tell it. Or it’s being tired, so tired, and discouraged, and not feeling the joy in preparing to preach that you used to feel. And it’s feeling guilty about that. None of that is conducive to writing fluently, or well.
Huguley’s book touches none of that. It just gives orders, assigning writing tasks to its reader on a schedule. An eight-hour schedule. Scheduling is really important, but for this advice to be helpful it has to speak to why the reader hasn’t taken the advice already.
So, here are some alternative resources, resources that point to the real difficulty in writing for preaching: this powerful list of Resources on Preaching for Women from the Junia Project, which includes more attention to craft than I’m used to seeing. No easy answers there.
But they do show one thing that all writers know and must do. And it is the one thing that all the pastors in my study of writing for preaching must do, too– at least, if they want a day off before Sunday rolls back around, as it inevitably does.
It’s showing up.
Just showing up for the writing. Like you show up for a dentist appointment even though you don’t really “feel in the mood” to have metal pokers jabbing into your teeth. Like you show up to pick up your kids even though you were in the middle of something when it was time to go. You have to show up. We can talk all day long about what to do once you’ve started writing, but the real truth is that most of us are saying we have writing problems when our real problem is that we didn’t even show up. Didn’t sit at the desk, didn’t open the document, didn’t start typing.
Preachers, can you show up for writing sermons the way you hope parishioners will show up to hear them? You hope they’ll show up on time. You hope they’ll show up even when they’re not really in the mood. You hope they’ll show up even if they’re tired, and even if their laundry’s not done. You hope they’ll show up with open hearts, with ears that hear and minds that consider. You hope they’ll show up like this because you know that there’s something just for them in the Gospel, no matter how bad your sermon turns out.
Can you show up for your preaching in the same way? Come on time, be awake, ignore the laundry, forget whether you’re in the mood. Just show up and start writing. There is something in the Gospel for you. If you show up.
For a writing scholar and teacher, for a person who more than once a week sits on the carpet writing alongside children, for a person who teaches adults to journal and grad students how to own their knowledge, for a person with a blog (!)…. I have a hard time writing about myself. A really hard time.
I’d rather write a technical manual for an appliance nobody uses. I’d rather write a note of apology for something I’m not that sorry about. I’d rather write a list of household chores. And then do the chores.
The great Anne Lamott gives this advice for writing about people in your life: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. Just change their height and hair color. No one ever once has recognized him or herself in my fiction. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.” And she’s right. But what about when the person is me?
I spend most of my writing life in the academic arena, where I am a professor of education at a research university. We academics are famous for writing stuff nobody will ever read, or at least that’s how we self-loathingly joke about it. But people do read my academic writing. Smart people. People I respect. People I know, and people I don’t know (I’m not sure which of those scares me more).
My academic writing has been explicitly about me a few times– I’ve written about my own childhood school experiences, and experiences as a parent. I’ve written much more than that about my teaching. And even the stuff that never says “I” is about me in that it’s the material I spend time with, reflect on, pour energy into, and care about.
But still, a couple of years ago I started researching about writing in the context of religion. And from there, it wasn’t long until I was sitting in research interviews that sometimes included as many questions for me as they did for my participants. And from there, it wasn’t long until yesterday, when I took deep breaths and hit “send” on a manuscript for an academic journal with stories in it about my own beliefs and my own prayer life. I hit “send,” but my heart still pounds a bit when I think about it. It feels transgressive, like I’m doing the one thing an academic must never do, even though the truth is that I go to a church that is absolutely packed with academics, and we’re doing just fine.
Which is why my heart soared to see this tweet from Krista Tippet today:
According to this, I’m not an overly insecure basket case (much); I’m just like Krista Tippet! And she’s right, it’s vulnerable-making. And she’s right, that is good for me. And collisions produce a lot of energy.
(And, when the article comes out, I’ll share it with you.)