The power of writing

HUNTING FOR MEANING Settle Monroe works with her students Meg Hardesty and Maddison Wooten.

Settle Monroe works with her students Meg Hardesty and Maddison Wooten.

by Settle Monroe

I was in the fourth grade when a local writer visited our classroom for a week. She came to teach us about the life of a writer, effective literary techniques, and even some of her secret tricks. I remember watching her walk around the classroom as she explained how to write rich descriptions. She stopped at my desk as she spoke, holding a metal stapler up in the air. With a gentle hand on my shoulder she asked me to come up with a simile to describe the object. “The stapler is like a shark,” I responded timidly, “with a wide mouth and sharp teeth.”

The writer nodded approvingly. “Yes, yes. This is the power of writing,” she declared, then turned to address the class. “Writing allows us to search beyond what we can see with our eyes.”

The hunt for meaning beneath the surface is what draws many of us to the blank page or to the blinking cursor. Writing is a way to express what we feel and to describe what we see. It is a way to share our stories and to create the ones still brewing in our minds. Writing allows us to wrestle and to reflect, to report and to feel. It forces us to stop and to notice.

For some of us, finding words and fumblingly stitching them together helps us to navigate the ordinary – as well as the joy and the pain – of life. And perhaps we will have only cardboard boxes filled with tattered, old journals to show for our work. Or maybe the power of the practice of writing is writing itself, beyond what we can see with our eyes.

I teach writing to small groups of middle school girls in our home. On Wednesday afternoons and evenings, our front door swings open and shut as groups of chatty adolescents come and go. They pour in with an outward eagerness to write the stories that bubble inside of them, and they open their journals with a quiet longing to try and make sense of everything happening in their young lives.

We write about topics particularly important to middle school, like navigating a school dance and engaging with the pressures of social media. But we also write in response to poetry and photographs, quotations and music. Each student brings her own unique and creative gifts to the class. And we work as a group to uncover and bring them to light in her writing.

Aydlett Gwyn is in the eighth grade at Daniels Middle School. Aydlett’s middle school experience is fairly typical. She works hard to put her best foot forward in her academics. She enjoys the competition of a grueling tennis match. And she loves spending time with her friends. While middle school has been a fun and exciting time for her, it has also carried with it the usual school and social stresses.

This is Aydlett’s third year in the writing group. Though initially reluctant to try it, she has found her group to be a safe place to express herself and to develop her own voice as a writer. “Writing helps alleviate all the stress going on in middle school,” she says. “If I am feeling really overwhelmed, I can write about it. It is just for me. I can pour everything out on the page, and it clears my mind.”

Over the years, Aydlett has certainly grown into a strong writer. But more importantly, she has uncovered the treasure of the writing process. Aydlett has found that Anne Lamott is correct when she states in Bird by Bird, “Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do – the actual act of writing – turns out to be the best part.”

Carol Henderson, an author, teacher and friend of mine, has been leading writing groups and workshops for over ten years. Her passion for books, poetry, and writing has led many people, like myself, to more deeply love and appreciate the written word. Each time I sit in a writing group with her, I am amazed at how she gently draws the experience, the scene, the feeling out from a writer.

Henderson’s personal experiences with grief and loss have fueled her desire to help men and women use writing as a path to healing and wholeness. She invites people suffering from loss – of a loved one, of health, or of a dream – to write about their experience. “I pick a lens, a perch from which to approach the devastation so many of us face and invite people to begin to let their feelings unfurl … People approach me in such pain, wondering how they could ever cope, survive. My only advice: ‘write.’ ”

So how do we do it? How do we even begin to write? Some of us are still scared by all of the red marks that covered our high school English papers. Others of us are overwhelmed by the pressure to write something profound or even readable. Some of us simply don’t know how to get started.

I often invoke the old writing adage, “write what you know,” with my middle school students. One student may fill her pages with descriptions of the oatmeal cookies her grandmother baked for her when she broke her arm in the fourth grade. Another girl might write a poem about spending a summer afternoon sitting on the front stoop listening to her mother and a neighbor chit-chat, while eating strawberry pie. It all matters. Everything can become a story.

Henderson encourages her students to use a simple prompt like “What’s in front of me?” to get started. “They can start describing what’s literally in front of them – a journal, pen, table, window – and go from there. They can move from the concrete into more abstract ideas like, ‘What’s in front of me in my life now?’ ”

Whether writing to try to make sense of the wonky adolescent years or to survive profound losses in life, writing through the feelings and events that we experience can lead to meaning beyond what we see. I learned this in the fourth grade, but I have come to believe it even more since then. Writing, as Anne Lamott says, is its own reward.