Within seconds a host of hands would rise up in the room, and one by one the students would bombard me with their questions: Do I have to write in cursive? What if there’s a word that I can’t spell? How long does it need to be? How many lines exactly? Does it have to rhyme? Can it rhyme? Can it be about my dog? Can it be a fantasy? Can I write about
My dog that died? Can I write
about my dog if he’s not dead? Can I get
a drink? Can I sharpen my pencil? Can I go to the bathroom? Colorado
“Just write,” I’d say, trying to hide the irritation in my voice, but it wasn’t the use of “can” or “may” that bothered me so much. What bothered me was the children’s inability to trust themselves to write. Early, I blamed teacher-dependence—a kind of encouraged helpless that came from the constant need to seek approval, but later I came to see another more important truth: The kids were stalling. They were afraid of the blank page. They wanted someone else to ease their fears, to tell them what to write so the fear would go away. But writing past the fear was work they had to do alone.
I cured the chronic case of cursivitis (my scientific name for this phenomenon) by making my own rule: Don’t ask me any questions you can answer. You’re the writer, I trust you to write the work. I enforced it by writing at the same time they were writing, quiet in a corner, moving my pen across the paper, so busy with my own work they didn’t want to interrupt. And pretty soon something truly magical began to happen: the kids wrote eagerly with confidence, day after day, and their poems were the stunning works of art I knew that they would be.
Whether I’m teaching third graders or grad students, the fears remain the same: Fear of the blank page. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of failure. Fear of truth-telling. Fear of wasted days, writing that won’t work. Sometimes older students start to beg for rules—just tell me how to do it; I don’t want to have to figure out this novel on my own. But I can’t tell anyone how to write their work, and even more, I don’t think that I should.
In the end, I believe there’s something truly sacred about art. Real art work is soul work; it holds the voice and vision of the creator, their dreams and aspirations, their wholly unique way of looking at the world. It’s original and real which is exactly why we like it. It’s also true—it’s the artist’s truth, and that matters most of all.
The wisdom that I’ve gained during decades of working with young writers, is the hard-won understanding that my writer-problems are just the same as theirs. I’m scared. I don’t want to waste my time or fail. I don’t want my story rejected by the world. But now I let those cursive kids serve as my example: I turn to my blank page with growing confidence and courage; I don’t ask for permission. I don’t ask another person to tell me what to write. I release the editor and critic, the teacher and the parent, every imagined critical authority that could prohibit me from trusting my true self, from making art that is my own. Like all those kids I coached, I know enough to sit still in my seat. To answer my own questions. To write my way through fear.