You are reading my second blog post today. This morning I wrote about my students and the particular burdens we adults put on them. Now it sits in a virtual scrapyard labeled “Orphans” on my computer. Essays and fragments of essays land there when I lose interest, reach an insurmountable obstacle, or see myself drop into a rut I’ve carved too many times. Most attempts I abandon midway when doubt overcomes will.
Rarely do I finish a post and then file the entirety as a failure, as I did today. And today’s reason is rare too—I wrote something I don’t believe. When I was in high school and college and even in graduate school (the first time), I could get so caught up in making an argument that, right or wrong, I’d run it down, run it to death. In the end, I either convinced myself (at least until I reread it later) or felt such pride in my well wrought object I wasn’t interested in truth anymore. I don’t do that so often now, but I guess I’m not over it.
Sometimes writing feels wildly creative, as if you were Tarzan picking out just the vines to cross the jungle, each grip presenting itself, a path through the air somehow illuminated before you. But writing can also be mechanical. You need to avoid overusing the verb “to be” or want to replace the prepositional phrase “in my room” with the possessive “room’s” or seek to sidestep using “I” once more. And the line between creative and mechanical can be faint. One moment your choices fulfill a sort of fate, the next they repeat a process as engrained as factory work.
This morning, I began with a quotation by Jonathan Swift, “No wise man ever wished to be younger.” I didn’t know what I wanted to say about it really, but set out to dispute it. How could I not envy my students, after all? I said they, “Possess the foolishness of invincibility and are well armed for adversity, having barely tested their response to it.” The only reason I might not envy them, I decided, is the pressure they feel, pressure imposed by us, the parents, teachers, and other adults in their life.
Sounds good, but 447 words later, having flown through my jungle of thoughts in an impassioned plea on their behalf, I wondered if I’d told the truth… or, worse, if I’d even told my truth.
Writing often has its own agenda, not a desire for completion so much as neatness, an idea combed or arranged with just the right sort of disarray. Here is a paragraph from my aborted post:
My students love the word “pressure” and use it constantly. They can’t help noticing the dome of hope they live under, the pre-supposed life story they hear retold and retold, a tall tale that often drains joy and spontaneity from this subject, this class, this now. We want the best for them but, for them, that translates as wanting more. Why are we surprised they find ways to appear to be what we want… and are something else when we’re not looking? Why are we surprised by their duplicitous, dishonest lives?
When a metaphor presents itself—a dome of hope—the compulsion to harmonize comes over me. Everything I write after must agree in some way. That life story they hear and rehear, the protection from spontaneity, the wall separating them from now, all those quasi-images extend the original assertion. Yet each also contradicts my original observation that youth are well-armed, insensitive to limitations. Each stepped away from the last.
And are youth insensitive or not? Many—how could I ever even imagine speaking for all of them?—feel expectations keenly. For those students, the issue with pressure is hypersensitivity. Sometimes they seem nervous parrots afraid to step from their cages. A few are so afraid of screwing up they eschew any public or private risk. As it’s messy to explain how complicated and variable the situation is, I stooped to rhetorical questions, which answer nothing and only propose reexamination.
In other words (the short version), I found myself speaking to speak and not truly to communicate. Those moments leave me wishing to apologize to myself. I turned my head for sound and fury. I hadn’t been faithful.
When I cast aside something I’ve written, I grieve. A whole essay, like this morning’s, causes particular grief because all my effort and all my hope came to nothing… and I still have a post to write. Yet given a little time I get over it and even, as now, can appreciate it. A writer’s lessons may never stick but they’re also always new. The challenge is always new, and maybe that, as much as truth, keeps me going.