A Good Question

Where do you write?”

It was a surprising question from a guest at a party in my home.

It shouldn’t have surprised me. I write. I even sometimes call myself a writer.   I’ve worked with this woman for seven years. She knows this about me, reads my blog, and owns a copy of my book. Why did her question catch me so off guard?

I proceeded to explain that if it was morning I wrote at my dining room table because I love the morning light on the golden walls of that room. If the weather is mild, I sit on a back patio by a small fountain, where the sound of the trickling water and the green walls of trees and shrubs surround me. That spot, in fact, is where I wrote my devotional book a few years ago, and I showed her the exact chair where I sat on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, pulling together the week’s worth of handwritten notes and scribbles and somehow turning then into seven devotionals a week in order to meet a tight deadline.

It took only seconds to answer her, but long after the guests were gone and the last dish put away, the question still lingered in my mind.   Though in the moment I was serving as hostess, and day-to-day this person signs my paycheck as a teacher, her question spoke identity to me. She sees me as a writer.

Where do you write does two things for me. It acknowledges my identity as a writer and my need for space and time to work. The question validates writing as work, real work that must be done in a particular space at a certain point in time. CFOs have offices; teachers have classrooms; surgeons have operating rooms. Writers have… desks, tables, laptops, coffee shops… patios?

The inward response of surprise I felt when she posed her question, along with the lightness in my spirit I felt afterwards tells me two things as well. I’ve begun to believe it myself, that I am made to write, that it is who I am; but the surprise tells me that I have yet to conceive that others see me that way. The satisfaction in having the very question posed tells me I long for that – to be seen by others as a writer.

It’s all fine and good to say one should write because she has things to express or one should write whether anyone reads it or not (there are some valid reasons for that – not everything I write is to be public) – but at the end of the day, writing, though extremely solitary in the doing, is not solitary at all. It’s a conversation. I am writing TO somebody, maybe to several “somebodies”. Writing is relational. It’s my side of the topic and I need a reader to ‘talk back’. Whether she ever literally speaks to me about what I’ve written is not the point, but I need to know that someone nods and smiles and underlines and cries and argues as she reads my words – the same way I do when I read my favorite writers who may never know I exist.

The first week of class in AP Language and Composition we cover the rhetorical triangle: speaker, audience, and subject. Without the audience, the triangle collapses. We can’t write into nothingness. You, the reader, must be there for us, in our mind’s eye and ear. We shape our sentences and choose our words for you.

From the first methods class in composition as an undergraduate, I was taught that a good writing teacher writes with her students. I believed it. I still believe it. How can I teach what I do not know and do? I have always found this extremely difficult, though, perhaps because I took it too literally. While my students write, the temptation is too strong to be reading the last thing they wrote or conferencing with one who needs help. The marking of papers is never done!

But I do write with my students – daily, weekly, and regularly. I struggle with blank page, the distractions, the frustrations of revisions and edits, and the balancing of more urgent things vying for my time just like they do.  I don’t write in the classroom while they write, but I do write with them – in my dining room and on my patio and in the red leather chair in the den.   It was an excellent question: Where do you write?

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This Page Is Intentionally Left Blank

I sat outside on my patio on a recent Saturday morning grateful for the day before me. The sky was blue; the temperature, mild.  The sweltering Alabama summer is finally leaving and fall is on the way.  It wasn’t just climate and season, however, that had me exuberant that morning.  It was the blank day before me.   Not one thing – nothing -was on my calendar.  This is rare in my life, even for the weekends. I made a list in my journal of things I might do – cook soup for the freezer, do some much-needed yard work, catch up on some grading from school – but I was careful to list them as options.  Choices, I labeled them, not a “to-do list”.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about having margins in our lives.  Mainly confessing to my own weakness of over-scheduling and fearing I’d passed on the vice to at least one of my offspring, I was thinking about the need to have unscheduled time in a day, leaving room for the unexpected crisis and spontaneous opportunity.  Margins – blank space on the page –  are not enough anymore.  Sometimes whole pages need to be blank.

It’s good for the body and the soul to wake up and have nothing and no one demanding your presence, your attention, your labor, or your time.  To be able to lose yourself in a project, a book, a conversation, or a nap with no regard for an alarm ringing or a reminder pop-up is not just luxury but essential to well-being.  Too often, we relegate these kind of days only to vacations, yet the more I try to honor my creative life, the more I realize that unstructured time is critical to the creative process.

Like children who need unstructured time for play, we need blank space too – to move from one thing to the next in exploration and wonder.  Jesus chastised his disciples when they tried to exclude the little children from coming to him.  In fact, he took the children into his arms and blessed them and told us all to receive the kingdom of God as children do.  Could it be that living in the Imago Dei means leaving blank pages on which we can create?

For most of us, it isn’t that our every waking moment is filled with gainful employment or as students with scholastic endeavors. It’s often our entertainment and leisure that is over scheduled. Ballgames, gatherings with friends, volunteer positions and church work – it’s all good stuff and it has its place in our lives. Connection and community are as important as solitude and creativity.  But I fear it’s the latter that take a backseat for most of us.  Why is that?

Do we fear the blank day the way my students fear the blank page when writing? Despite the fear, not once at the end of the class hour, has a student turned in a paper with nothing on it. They may not write a masterpiece, but they always get words on the page and are better for it.

Sometimes in legal documents, manuals, or standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT, the words “THIS PAGE IS INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK” appear.   This serves to alert the reader that there has been no printing error but rather the page is there to separate content or hold a space or  prevent working ahead or even cheating on those timed test.  It’s a useful phrase.

We can and should create; we need to wander around and choose rather than check off a ‘To Do List” every day. We need to write on our calendars occasionally: “THIS PAGE IS INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK.”