The Writing Life: When Does it Begin?

We asked of the small group of self-selected “magazine project” students how many thought of themselves as a writer.

Most denied the claim outright. One said that she used to love writing, but had come across something she had written “long ago” and “it was awful.” She had been very proud of it at the time it was written, but she was embarrassed by it today. So she had “given up” the notion of writing. How do we bring such writing agonies into perspective?

I am not equipped to talk about the broad topic of writing with any group–much less a mixed group of 8th to 11th graders. I can only tell my story. Tomorrow, another local writer, blogger and poet will speak to the magazine group.

So without teaching writing, the two of us will be showing them the writing life–as it has found its way unexpected into the lives of two adults who “became writers” much later than the ages of these students, and from very different urgencies and needs and hopes.

Both of their teachers will emphasis a special attention to the shape, feel and power of language. They can learn best to write by reading; by paying a little extra attention to the way authors craft character, place and narrative form. Even non-fiction is about story.

At the end of the day and of the few days I’ll have an hour with these students, it is their own story I want to them to feel growing every day, even now. I would hope that a few of them might go on to learn the power of words, the joy of the senses and of intentional memory, and the special way the notion of writing will make them attend to and “frame” the details–not unlike the eye of the photographer for composing in light.

At their age, I wrote when my teachers told me I had to. It was an assignment–never an outlet, never a megaphone for a passion. But then, nobody–even my teachers–ever mentioned creative writing. I no idea that skill set was even on the menu.

I pulled some writing quotes from the first few of many pages at If we should run out of things to say about writing, I’ll recruit ideas from those who have known the joys and terrors of the craft.

“A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips; – not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself.” — H D Thoreau

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
― Robert Frost

“If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.”
― Anaïs Nin

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
― Anton Chekhov

Show don’t tell.

“Write the kind of story you would like to read. People will give you all sorts of advice about writing, but if you are not writing something you like, no one else will like it either.”
― Meg Cabot

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”
― John Steinbeck

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
― Jack London

“Write what should not be forgotten.”
― Isabel Allende

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Joy, I hold some hope of being audible, but my thought bubble in the imagined image of me in class offering my soliloquy about the power of language shows “blah blah blah blah blah blah Harry Potter blah blah blah blah Hunger Games…

    The voice is that of Charlie Brown’s teacher. I could tell them this, and am guessing they’d say “Charlie who?”

  2. I have no writer’s spark, but I really enjoyed reading about writers’ thoughts. As a former 7thgrade science teacher, I am we’ll aware of your concern about being tuned out. My best suggestion is to talk in very short bursts, then take a break for some other activity. Do that many times during your hour. Their attention span is truly short! Get volunteers to read the quotes, and get volunteers to respond to them. If they are shy, have them write one sentence responses, and call on one to read theirs. That’s all a science teacher can think of to suggest!