Today I can’t stop thinking about digging. It’s likely a metaphor inspired by six days of shoveling snow — the heavy kind with huge chunks of ice underneath. This is what writing feels like much of the time — heavy lifting. I’m not saying this from an entirely self-absorbed place either. I’m thinking about a second grade student that I’ve never met, and a dozen or so ageless, imaginary students I don’t have yet.

The second grade student came up in conversation today with a group of local public school teachers. The student has participated in writing workshops for two and a half years and has shown both deep interest and talent in writing. But this year his well’s been dry. The teachers can tell he’s wrestling with some personal issues at home, but they’re heart-broken that he won’t write or talk, that he’s withdrawn completely.

I usually try really hard (albeit often unsuccessfully) to be quiet during conversations like this, because I’m in the room primarily as a nonprofit administrator, and I don’t have the kind of teaching and practical child development expertise that these other women have. But today, this second grader’s story tugged really hard at my writerly strings.

“You know,” I said, “As a writer, I often find it hard to put the emotionally difficult stuff in my notebook when it’s still fresh, because I know it will be there forever. Sometimes I write on loose leaf paper instead, then decide later whether to tape it into my journal, bury it until I’m ready to face it again or toss it out completely.” This strategy pleased the teachers. They noted that the writing this student had done this year was outside of his writer’s notebook.

Somehow, though, even as these teachers grew excited about the prospect of getting him writing again, I absorbed some of this young writer’s melancholy. Wasn’t I just lamenting a few blog entries ago about how hard the writerly life is? It takes real guts to examine your life with a magnifying glass all the time. Don’t believe me? Or want to commiserate? Read Ralph Keyes’ The Courage to Write.

This idea of heavy lifting struck me again this evening as I resumed work on a 12-week writing curriculum I’m trying to forge. It’s not the kind of curriculum I’m accustomed to thinking about — not just transferring my strategies and enthusiasm for writing to a typical classroom of students. I’m designing a writing workshop to engage a yet-to-be-identified group of bereaved children. What hard work I’m asking them to tackle in such a short time! Perhaps I need to reconsider my goals and expectations and, at the very least, remain flexible and responsive to what emerges as we work together. After all, you can’t script this stuff — writing, life, art — it doesn’t work that way. You work with what you’re given. You make something beautiful of a lump of clay.

-Julie

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