I believe that to write is to learn, that to put pen to paper, or fingers to a keyboard, is a precious opportunity to translate the language of thought. This is certainly not a new idea; William Zinsser, a master of writing about writing, has espoused it for years. As a means of understanding and communication, writing provides a world of second chances. It is an occasion to consider what we think and feel, how to express it, and then possibly to delete, scratch it out, and say it again.
As my semester as a writing tutor came to a close recently, I had a student whose psychology professor had cared enough to write a one page response to her two page paper. The assignment was to write a “This I Believe” essay, and a revision had been requested.
The student was a young lady who had been involved in her church throughout her youth. At some recent point, however, she suffered a tragic loss. Her faith was shaken, and it seemed she could only write about what she no longer believed. Her professor’s carefully written response was intended to guide her through re-envisioning different shapes of belief. For example, “I believe faith can be tested when tragic events occur.”
Back in 1974, when I entered my sophomore year in college, I was this student. A friend of mine had died three weeks earlier. Back on campus and away from home, there was no one to share my grief. The small Bible study group, which I had joined the previous spring, failed to provide the answers I needed, so I turned to my course work in search of solace. I took Creative Writing, hoping it might help me express my pain more freely. During the next three years, I continued with courses such as the Psychology of Religion, Intro to Philosophy and even Death and Dying. Each one required several written attempts to evaluate, analyze and try to make sense of life’s questions.
The young student and I talked about her essay. I worried that she might break down at some point and tell me everything as a means of explanation, but she didn’t. Nor did I refer to my own experiences of long ago. Instead, I asked her questions based on the professor’s notes, which she considered silently. At one point, I asked her something I don’t even remember now, and her face changed; the eyes opened wider and she went for her pen. She grabbed the original essay and wrote quickly in the blank space at the bottom of the page. “I think I got it,” she said softly.
I don’t know the outcome, whether the revision resulted in a higher grade or whether the student will add Creative Writing to her course work, but that moment when her pen hit the page was magical. As a writer, I wake each day with the hope I will have a moment like that, when elusive thoughts urge me to capture them and I have the opportunity to see something in a new way which is, after all, what learning is all about.
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