Keep Writing

For eight months starting last December, I had been journaling faithfully nearly every day; six or seven days most weeks. Then, about six weeks ago I stopped. I’m not sure why — maybe because I’ve been working on other projects. But suddenly I realized I’d disobeyed my own instruction: Keep writing.

“Keep writing” is what I scrawl as the sign off for nearly every student paper I comment on. As in: “Lots of powerful emotions here … keep writing!” or “So many great images and details in here … keep writing!” It’s the one message I know is worth imparting to my students, and one I need to remember for myself, too.

My students live in shelters or inner-city buildings where windows are grated and hallways smell of smoke and urine. Some have boyfriends or parents in jail. They are teenagers raising babies; girls who want to go out clubbing and sleep late, but who instead have to rise when their babies cry in the middle of the night or in the morning. “Keep writing,” I scribble on their pages, hoping they will someday tell the stories that in the meantime the world is writing for them … in the form of either rants against ‘babies having babies’ or in the form of statistics on the dangers of teen pregnancy, or in stories of domestic abuse that are told again and again in the newspapers.

“Keep writing,” I admonish my students – many of whom can’t spell “maybe” or “our.” Or who struggle for the twenty minutes of our writing time to craft a few lines, but who don’t know where to put the periods or the difference between a sentence and a paragraph.

And tonight, after seven years of teaching, I have forgotten what I mean by it: “Keep writing.” Even decades into my own writing practice, I sometimes forget.

Writing: I do it. I teach it. My cabinets and shelves are filled with at least four dozen of my own journals – plus those of others. I write my way out of depressions and into ideas for work, or for solving relationship problems. I write my way into memories and through dreams. But how do I teach others to do it?

Mostly, I don’t. As the creative writing instructor I’m freed of the responsibility to teach grammar and syntax. Sometimes I teach definitions such as metaphor v. simile, sonnet, haiku and stanza. But mostly what I teach is to keep at it. Read something and answer with a poem. Write about your anger, fear, memories. Don’t be afraid of the blank page or the quiet span of minutes it takes to get that sentence down. And then the next …

photo by Aja Riggs copyright 2007

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