“Writers teach, not writing per se, but how to engage in writing as a process and a means of perception. The actual work of writing is seldom sublime. It’s a struggle that grows more difficult if we avoid it. Writing is often excruciatingly slow and repetitive. Time, in slipping and sliding, makes itself felt and immediate. Words are the way in, but nothing is guaranteed. What writers or readers can do with language, or understand inside it, depends on what they know—on refining their sensibilities, on writing, revising, waiting, reading, writing, as though living in language were life and death. Because it is: writing is certainly life. And writing is death.”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, about how we learn to write and how we teach writing. I’ve been thinking about how it doesn’t always work because I meet people all the time who struggle to write a complete sentence and really seem not to understand the first thing about what makes good writing.
Writing, good writing, does not come easy, ever, to anyone. Good writing requires effort and sustained engagement. What it is not is quick, easy, or obvious. It demands concentration, something in short supply in the 21st century. It requires preparation and attention to details. It often necessitates a good dose of humility because growth happens in fits and starts, and there is almost always something that can be done better. This is true of my own writing as well as anyone else. Nearly every time I reread something I’ve written in the past, I cringe at some awkward sentence or a misplaced modifier I didn’t catch before, but each one is an opportunity to improve it, one more time.
What writing is, what it can accomplish is phenomenal; that’s why we teach it and why we should work hard to learn how to improve. Writing—just markings on a page or a screen—have changed the hearts and minds and fortunes of people for thousands of years, and sometimes we get so focused on the difficulties and the rules that we forget to celebrate the possibilities, the potential, the power of language. Obviously, we celebrate the “Greats,” the Shakepeares and Shelleys and Faulkners and Kings, among many, many others, but I would suggest that the day-to-day writing we do, including but not limited to speeches and essays and poetry, hold the potential to change lives and touch souls. I cannot count the times I have teared up when reading student work, either because the topic touched me or because of the improvement and effort I see. So many times, I have read someone’s writing and suddenly see that individual with new eyes and new respect. I have been bowled over by the amazing work of very gifted writers and also by the very simple prose of emerging writers, and each time I’m instilled with a tremendous sense of humility in the face of greatness.
We can think of hundreds of examples of writers and writing that literally.changed.the.world: JF Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglas, Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, Abe Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Chief Joseph, Alexander the Great, Douglas MacArthur, Mahatma Gandhi, Ronald Reagan, Jesus, Mother Teresa, Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Keller, et al. These people used their words—organized precisely and arranged in commanding prose—to move the hearts and change the minds of people around the world. Not everyone will be able to write something that will change the world and get the attention of millions of people, but we all have the ability to learn to write so well that we can change the hearts and minds of some people (maybe our teachers!), and though we might not change the world, we can certainly change our own lives. Writing matters.