1. My memory isn’t what it used to be.
My students say, “You’ve told us this before,” and I’m doubly surprised—first, that they’re listening so closely and, second, that they see me as I saw so many teachers, as sound loops whose advice followed a recognizable arc ever threatening toward circling. Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised. Teachers never give students’ attention enough credit, while, mostly unconsciously I hope, perpetuating the hierarchy of authority and acolyte. Though we shouldn’t assume pupils need to hear lessons more than once, we do.
Yet it’s devastatingly disappointing to discover I’ve repeated myself writing. Who knows how many sentences I’ve composed here and elsewhere, and who could keep track of such a number? Nonetheless, my heart sinks when rereading reveals the same thoughts. One of the best motives for feeding your brain with news, with visual art, with music, with fiction, with essays, with culture in every form is to train and supplement your mind. If you can remember what you experience, maybe you will find something new to say or a different way to say it. I wish I could absorb more of the world outside.
2. I’m finite.
Then again, maybe I’m being too hard on myself. Rationalization may lie behind this assertion, but what one person calls repetition another calls evolution, refinement, or focus. I may have only so much to say because experience points me toward a point of view. My conclusions stem from what I’ve seen and decided is true.
Once a student asked me to give her a list of five qualities of good writing. Thinking she was really after “What the teacher is looking for,” I tried to devise some surprises, but, after teaching composition so long, I found the task herculean. I do like what I like and love/hate my preferences, never knowing whether to embrace or deplore them. The best I could do for my curious student was to reshape and clarify what I’d so often said before.
3. I never finish a thought.
Yet as long as I’m rationalizing, here’s another explanation to consider: these abetting subjects might be abetting questions instead. I return to them because they remain unfinished and unsettled, like apples that sit uncertainly atop a pile of apples, threatening to undermine everything they rest upon.
But I don’t really believe that, and how consoling would it be if I did? What’s the difference between being stuck in the same questions and confessing how stalled you feel? I could be admitting finitude again, just circling to get there.
4. I only have one voice.
So maybe the answer is acceptance.
I have a strange affection for commencement speeches and haunt YouTube each spring to find intriguing ones. Most are just what anyone would expect, but occasionally, I unearth an unlikely find.
John Grisham delivered the graduation speech at UNC in 2010, and, while I’m largely uninformed about Grisham the writer, his humility, humor, and sense about writing moved me. He said, “Writing is a lot like life itself. In life, a voice is much more than the sound we make when we talk. Infants and preschoolers have voices and can make a lot of noise, but a voice is more than sound.”
This “more,” he suggests, is a writer’s characteristic expression, for “When a writer finds the voice, the words flow freely, the sentences become paragraphs and pages and chapters and the story is told, the writer is heard and the reader is rewarded.”
I’ve only read one Grisham novel and can’t remember how rewarded I felt, but putting the instrument before the music offers comfort. If writers have, and properly have, only certain notes to sound, then artistry is playing their instruments with sincerity and spirit. A writer can lament his or her instrument isn’t better—I continually do—but, if you have something to say, maybe it’s only because you are saying it. Seen in this light, writing one essay isn’t so bad, not a sin but a startling mastery of the obvious. “These essays are all you,” I might tell myself, “and how could you be anything else?”
The most difficult part of writing a book is not devising a plot which will captivate the reader; it is not developing characters the reader will have strong feelings for or against; it is not finding a setting which will take the reader to a place he or she has never been; it is not the research, whether in fiction or non-fiction. The most difficult task facing a writer is to find a voice in which to tell the story.
I’m not sure I have a voice or even like the idea if it means I possess all I can expect to. Maybe this book I’m writing is the only book I can or will write. But voice promises that, if I never have a fresh thought again, I own a means to express what I know, notice, realize, and feel, at least today. And, as long as I concentrate on speaking clearly, you might understand me. I’ll be heard.
Maybe the joy of exercising my voice should be enough.