Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Teachers Write: Facing Fears and Fiercely Writing

"You have words of your own....I want you to trust your own words."
                                                    ---Allie Condie in Matched (81) 

To write from a place of honesty and vulnerability takes courage and faith in oneself, faith in one's choice and use of words. As others in the Teachers Write group have articulated, we ask our students to face their fears daily.

As a speech communication teacher, I expect students to publicly make themselves vulnerable to the judgments of their classmates. There's no escaping the awkward moments that result from a poorly prepared speech or a lapse in memory or a mispronounced word. A trusting, caring community isn't a luxury but a necessity when students lay bare their values and beliefs in a speech.

Writing, on the other hand, can remain hidden from public scrutiny--except when one enters a social contract such as the one inherent in the Teachers Write workshop. We professional teachers are stripping away our protective, professional layers and exposing ourselves to one another and to the professional writers we admire and critique on our blogs and in our classrooms. We have relinquished the game of teacher hide and seek when we post the products of our "write what you know" selves.

I've been thinking about these risks since learning about Teachers Write, especially since I'm not particularly fearful of writing, per se. Others, however, have acknowledged their fears, which prompted Kate Messner to pen "Writing Fear: An Open Letter to the #TeachersWrite Community" in which she identifies two types of fear:
  • The fear that "keeps you safe from things that might cause you real and imminent harm" and
  • The fear "that we feel when we’re about to exceed the artificial limits we’ve set for ourselves. When we’re about to step outside of our cozy little boxes and try something new. Something that’s scary because we might fail. And what will people think?"
Jo Knowles, guest author and source of Monday morning writing prompts, offers helpful advice to those facing their writing fears:  

"When you are starting out, write for yourself. Write for the joy of putting words to paper/keyboard. Write for the thrill of finding the perfect phrase to convey an emotion, or a tense scene, or a quiet exchange of love. Let go of the negative self-talk we so often use about ourselves when it comes to wanting to try something new but being afraid we'll fail. Here's something I already know about you: No one can write like you. Your job is to find out what that means. (Hint: Embrace your own unique voice, and let it shine!)"

"No one can write like you." What a fabulous sentiment. Just as we each have our own unique finger prints, retina scans, personalities, so too do we have our own unique ways of writing. I remember a novel that illustrates this very point. Primary Colors was published under the name "Anonymous," but soon Joe Klein, at the time a correspondent for Newsweek, was eventually identified as the author based on an analysis of his writing style.

After reading author Jeannine Atkins' blog post "Writing from a Vulnerable Place" and her reminder that tears often accompany writing, whether we're writing a funny story or one that "feels as if it’s been sitting inside you too long" I began considering my third fear: fear of the emotions that accompany writing.

The academic and essay writing with which I am most comfortable springs from authoritative me, but as Jeannine says, "as creative writers, we want to connect more than instruct." That requires an emotional fierceness different from and, perhaps, more vulnerable and risky than blogging about pedagogy or analyzing window images in Virginia Wolf. Such creative writing "can ruffle us up. We’re going to look ridiculous and leave messes." 

For me creative writing requires a peeling of skin like peeling an onion; both open my tear ducts. On Jeannine's blog I responded to her ideas about being vulnerable:

"You touch on something so important to my own writing phobias. It’s not writing that scares me. It’s the “dark place” I find myself entering when composing something “creative” in the traditional sense. Today while writing in response to Jo Knowles’s prompt, I cried a littel. [sic] This happens with both humor and anquished prose. It occurred to me that I experience something similar to what a method actor does using the Stanislavsky method. I haven’t gone to the scary place in a long time as I don’t like it much. I like being happy. So, is there a writing method one can practice that detaches one from the dark recesses of one’s mind?"

I know that actors employ different tools to create characters for the screen and stage, but I don't know what methods writers use to avoid the equivalent of method acting as they put thoughts to paper.

I've long suspected that for me the truth about creative writing, whether poetry, creative nonfiction, or fictional prose, resides in Jeannine's response to my query, which reads in part:

"Sadly, I think you for the answer may be that there’s not a method that keeps you from the dark recesses. What you may have to remember is that they’re there, but you have the power to leave them. The tears may come, but you may feel better for having them come, then drying them, than you would in trying to keep away from that part of your mind."

In her post "Writing and Tears" Jeannine suggests that a writing method that avoids the emotional angst may not be particularly desirable. That's certainly something cry babies like me will have to think about and weigh in the balance. I do know, however, that the little creative writing I've done in the past and that I paid for with the price of a box of tissue and blood-shot eyes feels personally valuable and worthwhile.

Today, Kate Messner posted a prompt asking #TeachersWrite participants to write about a specific place. For years I've feared the gym, although it's a daily destination for me. Facing the fear of both the place and the prompt, I wrote about one area of the gym I affectionately call the  Testosterone Pit. This is the result of my vulnerability today, Tuesday, June 5, 2012. Feel free to offer truthful suggestions and comments as I set the doc up that way.

Thank you for reading, for writing, for community, for collegiality. I trust your words and plan to continue to use my own.


  1. Your words ring true to me as well. I think as teachers, we come from the same place, the world of academia, where we write with proof and evidence. Creative writing is another realm. A potentially frightening one. I look forward to reading about your scary gym next, and then heading to my own computer to write. Thanks for your reflection!

  2. Glenda, I don't know you, but just saw this on twitter & remembered you were one who 'followed' me, so thought I'd stop by. You are so meticulous in your thinking. I liked that you went through the pieces of the recent days, really, just two days and shared your fears and feelings. Your piece about the gym is filled with gritty descriptions of those there. Since I've never been to a big gym, I can imagine it all now perfectly. You've not made that corner inviting. I like that your tone set out in one way & did not waver. You gave no quarter, I believe. Good for you for not compromising your feelings! And thanks for sharing.

  3. I'm echoing Linda. You are clearly someone both brave and sensitive, really doing everything right. We trust you, and it seems like you're building more trust in yourself. Thanks for all your thoughtfulness -- and for exploring more new places.