To Begin at the Beginning

Yesterday (September 2) was my first day back in the classroom in twelve years. I work with first-year students enrolled in EN104—these students are developing writers, and based on what I’ve seen so far, have a good deal of work ahead of them to find, focus, and improve what they want to say. We met at 8 o’clock; despite the early hour, their eagerness was palpable. Many of these kids are first generation college students who know how to work hard for what they want and who know already that giving up is not an option they want to consider. Because it’s a basic comp class, they’re working on five paragraph essays—and yet I saw something in them that’s basic to all creative writers, and to myself.

Our classroom resembles the Writers’ Room, in a way. We call the room a Writing Lab, which means (new to me, since I had stopped teaching before this was an expectation in higher ed) each person sits at a computer. We compose separately, off and on throughout class time—and then come together with the work. Each one of us has a book in front of us in order to discuss one model of writing or other before we set out our own path of words: today it’s a paragraph from Maxine Hong Kingston, David Sedaris, Barbara Ehrenreich, or someone else who spends a lifetime working and perfecting how he or she says things on paper.

What I try to teach them (teaching them from my innermost poetry writing self as well as my professional prose writing self) is that beginnings are hard. They are rocky—often literally so, the writing jagged or off balance—or floppy, with sentences like sponges that absorb meaning back into themselves without offering much to the reader. I emphasize the power of starting. Just starting, no matter what result. And then, intensive building.

Years ago, I used to give my students play-doh at the start of each class about revision. “Make your writing like this,” I would say, rolling a ball. “Then this,” changing it into a square. “You might even have to try this,” flattening it out, rolling it up, and moving into a new shape. I like to think I carry these methods into my own practice, and I can feel their terror as they imagine their rationally thought out string of words moving so drastically. Because it all might fall apart. But the play-doh is always there—and even if the words are cut away, new words can replace them. It’s easier to see in a poem how the white space works to an advantage (when new words would only be extra baggage for the writing to carry around), but it’s true in so many different forms of writing.

I see around me a group of students with so much to say, so impatient to say it, and I realize that this writing class isn’t just a requirement. They want to be writers, at least in this room, and when they say they don’t like writing, they mean they are frustrated, looking for a way in, tired of missing the mark when they are communicating something so important to them. Their dedication to the class, their looking inward and outward for a subject, their keenness to get started, to get writing, to wrestle along the way, is exactly what poets, fiction writers, playwrights, non-fiction writers, experience every time they engage with their craft. Everyone (or most everyone) feels that “new to this” or “what now?” sensation with each blank page.

So I remind them about the magic of each work-in-progress, and how, as Ted Hughes puts it in his poem “The Thought Fox,” when one is writing, writing happens: “It enters the dark hole of the head./The window is starless still; the clock ticks,/The page is printed.”

-Valerie Duff, 2015 Poetry Fellow

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