here I am, a work in progress: Writing Identity Letter

A beginning of the school year ritual: each year I write or revise a letter introducing myself to my students, and I require the students to do the same. For AP Lang, we specifically focus on writing identity, and I ask students to tell me who they are as writers. Here’s mine, slightly changed from last year: 

Dear Students,

Before I wanted to be a teacher, I wanted to be a writer. And before that, I was a reader. For me, those three things are rock-paper-scissors; one or the other tends to come out on top and at times cuts or crushes the others, but in a game of three rounds you can bet I’ll throw my best version of each. When I teach writing, I know that my students need to read great writing, and I base a lot of my knowledge about writing in what I have read and loved. But I also think about the practice and process of writing that I go through and what experiences of mine might be helpful to younger people who are learning how to write.  

I always tell my students that “if you write, you’re a writer,” and I truly believe that what grants us the identity of writing is the practice of writing. “Practice” means a few things here: first, it’s just doing it. It’s the repeated and habitual flexing of the muscles we use in our craft. I write almost every day now. Second meaning of “practice”– just like practicing a sport or an instrument or any skill, we get better by trying to do it better, and trying over and over again. So when I say I am a writer, I don’t mean that I have arrived at some point of mastery or gotten a trophy, I mean that I am trying my very best to get better at writing by practicing it over and over.

An individual practice is defined by how we do it. I usually write by hand in a notebook, in pen, with messy cross-outs and arrows to show what order things go in. I like to write in coffeeshops and libraries, on porches or park benches, at any time of the day or night. I stare off into space or make funny faces when I write because thoughts are trickling through my head and forming stubbornly obtuse ice dams that I need to break through. Sometimes I write all at once in a big rush, and the first draft is pretty much how it stays. This happens most often with poetry. But sometimes I will chip away at an idea for an essay over time, keeping a list of fragments, writing the same section over and over again, or having long conversations with friends about my ideas that eventually make it down onto paper.

I have been writing frequently this summer, with a few finished pieces that I’m happy with, and some beginnings of things that I’m excited to continue. Current works in progress include: A poem called “Love Song for Lawrence of Arabia,” a sonnet, “In 50 Years, on Your Porch,” two short stories, one featuring my friend Sam Holliday as a 1940s spymaster, the other about a guy who goes through a breakup and literally learns to fly.  I also want to write something about a horrific jaguar rampage that happened at a New Orleans zoo this summer, but I haven’t yet found a form that captures the drama and horror of the actual event.

Finding time and energy to write can be a challenge, but I have a gift in my career. My job requires a constant engagement with literary texts. I keep up with book news. I follow authors and read their blogs. I get to read amazing student writing which teaches me a lot about individuality and voice; in critiquing students’ work I get to learn about pitfalls of writing and places where things get stuck. During the school year I write comments on papers, notes to other teachers, emails to parents, detailed plans for my lessons, “plots” for the semester, and discussion questions. This year, I am especially lucky to have you, my AP Language and Composition class, because I intend to write alongside you.  

This letter is supposed to be about me, but I’d like to write about you for a second. You are about to embark on a course of study that will be strenuous and at times perilous, but (I hope) ultimately valuable and enjoyable. You will be challenged in this class. You’ll probably fill an entire notebook with writing. You might feel that you’re not good enough. You are. You also need to look around and realize that everyone in the room is going to struggle.

I am aware that this letter may distress you. You may not be used to teachers acknowledging that we’re still learning or that we’re at the starting point of something. You may be wondering if you’ll get through this class alive and how you’ll do on the AP test. I assure you– I am indeed an expert in reading, in analyzing text, in academic writing, and in teaching. I’m a connoisseur of literature and a sommelier of language. I’m critical and crafty and cranky about precision and quality. I am also pretty good at having fun, and being real, and making people feel welcome, so I hope you’ll enjoy that as well. I do think it’s worth acknowledging, though, that writing is so personal and so hard and so magical that no one ever really masters it. No one is ever done learning how to write. Some people are a lot further along the road than you or I, but for every writer, there is always more practice to be done, more strength to uncover.

I so look forward to learning more about you and diving into our study of writing and language.

Sincerely,

Ms. Pace

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Writing these days

I have been writing! I say this with some triumph because it seems hard enough to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard every single day, much less produce something that exists as a piece of writing. But yes, I have been writing, and it’s become part of my life such that I don’t feel quite right if I’ve neglected a day. And I suppose I’ve produced some things that I like, or at least that I will like. But…… these days….. it kind of feels like I’m not getting anywhere.

I feel that now we’re settling into the doldrums of summer. If this were a naval adventure novel, we’d be becalmed. Getting agitated in the heat of the South Pacific’s sun, starting to hate the faces around us just for their familiarity. Mutiny might be stirring if we toiled under a tyrannical captain who applied the cat-o-nine-tails too liberally. Yet the worse agony would be staring out at the unchanging sea, wishing we were fish to at least feel the cool water moving against our scales. Will the wind ever stir itself and blow this July into motion?

Yesterday I got gravely stuck, and it brought me right down to the darkness under my bed (where at least it is cooler). I was stuck on this: why am I here? What is the purpose of all this doing and scheduling and trying to make my intellect move into work and writing, and my body move into anything but a sweaty blob indented into the sofa? Why am I doing anything, really? I always think to myself that the great purpose of life is love. But I’m rather alone, rather often. Love is there (it’s always there), but it seems a little distant at the moment. I feel purposeful when I work for my students, but my whole life can’t be dedicated to teaching work (especially during the summer). I hate the feeling of killing time. I hate days with nothing to do. If the purpose of a life is to make that life a happy one, why does that feel like so much work? Am I missing something?

—-

The pay-off of having established a daily writing mandate is that when I got into this foul, self-doubting mood, I wrote something. I thought it might get me on better footing for the rest of the day.

That didn’t happen. I napped for like three hours. It was terrible.

But at least I wrote something! And I think, if I can once again perform my most famous trick of taking messy notebook writing and play with shapes and make it into something worth continuing, I might have an essay.

The idea would be this: sometimes it might be worthwhile to stop looking so clearly through the air for goals and signs and finish lines, and to instead live our lives underwater so that even if things are blurry, we are conscious of the watery world around us. We are submerged in life, and can move forward without waiting to reach something.

That’s an idea that might be worth writing.