Thursday, September 13, 2007

Not So Much Pepper Here

I am sitting at a small desk, facing a wall in a small room--really a walk-in closet--in my apartment. My "view" encompasses a framed poster that I retrieved from the trash room in my apartment building, a poster that advertises an exhibit at The National Gallery of Art. To my left is a wall of shelves that houses a disordered array of books and papers. To my right is a chest of drawers that contains more books and papers and magazines. At my rear is an assortment of boxes that contain a forlorn archive, the accumulated detritus of my fifty-two years. It is in this place, this environment, that I compose my blog posts. On the desk sits a ten-year-old word processor that fortunately still performs its designated purpose.

I will tell you what I know about letting yourself write.

The first trick, the one I am practicing now, is to just start where you are. It's a luxury to be in the mood to write. It's a blessing but it's not a necessity. Writing is like breathing, it's possible to learn to do it well, but the point is to do it no matter what.

Writing is like breathing. I believe that. I believe we all come into life as writers. We are born with a gift for language and it comes to us within months as we begin to name our world. We all have a sense of ownership, a sense of satisfaction as we name the objects that we find. Words give us power.

As toddlers, first we grab and then we grab with words. Every word we learn is an acquisition, a bit of gold that makes us richer. We catch a new word and say it over and over, turning it like a rich nugget in the light. As children, we hoard and gloat over words. Words give ownership: we name our world and we claim it.

As children, we learn new words at an astonishing clip. Words give us leverage: "Me go with Mommy!" Or, "Mommy stay." Children are specific and direct. They don't beat around the bush. Their words are personal and powerful. They are filled with will and intent. They are filled with passion and purpose. Children trust the power of words.

If words give us power, when do we start to lose our power over words? When do we start to feel that some of us are "good" at language and even have a shot at being "writers" while the rest of us just happen to use it and don't dare consider ourselves in that league?

My guess is that for most of us school is where this sorting starts to happen. School is where we are told, "You're good with words . . . " The neat teacherly scrawl, diagonally written across the top right-hand corner of the top page of, say, a geography report on Mexico, "Well written."

Well written--what does that mean? In school it usually means clear, orderly thinking. Neat enough grammar. Lots of orderly facts. It may also mean things we are taught, like "topic sentences" and "transitions." Very often it does not mean words that sing off the page, innovative word combinations, paragraphs of great free associations and digressions--all the gifts a young poet or novelist might have and want to use but not find useful under the scholarly discipline of an academic paper.

What happens when writing of that kind shows up in school papers? Too frequently, it's another margin note, this time negative: "You stray from the topic a bit here" or "Stick to the point." It is a rare teacher who takes the time and care to praise the kind of writing that doesn't fit into an academic paradigm. It's as though scholastically we're on a pretty strict diet: "Not so much pepper here."

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