“I’m not good at writing.” “I don’t really like reading.” “I don’t think of myself as a writer.” “Why do I need to learn how to write? I’m going to study engineering!”
My favorite moments teaching English come when students express doubts about the whole endeavor. Reading can seem exhausting, but when it comes to putting your own words down on the page, that gets even worse. And when you have to make an argument, or write your own poem… it all might sound overwhelming.
And yet the secret about writing – stories, poems, essays, novels, TV shows, Instagram captions – is that the magical part happens before you write anything. In my classes, I call it motive. The motive isn’t what you’re writing about: it’s why. Why do you care about something? What’s exciting to you? What makes you sit bolt upright at two o’clock, dazzled and obsessed, even if no one else cares? And that’s why studying English is amazing: by reading something great, you get to figure out what makes someone else tick. By writing something, you figure out what makes you tick. And by writing about what you’re reading, you get to do both: what makes you excited to figure out when you’re reading Hamlet, or Beloved, or “Jabberwocky”? Through reading and then writing about reading, you learn both about what’s going on inside the page, and what’s going on in you.
I fell in love with English when I realized the words on the page knew more about myself than I did. When I tried my hand at writing sonnets, fourteen-line poems with a strict rhyme and meter, at first I thought I wouldn’t be able to say anything. But then I realized that constraints freed me. I saw that by choosing my words so carefully, I was able to make an image and have an emotion I didn’t know I was having. As Emily Dickinson put it, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
The truth is, you already are a writer. You’re great at it! And you get to keep writing for the rest of your life.