Wednesday, July 20, 2011

write it down

I had a big decision to make recently. I kept talking to my boyfriend about it and, often, asking for his opinion. He doesn't like to influence my choices too much so he held himself at bay... rather valiantly. But I felt like I was going in circles. In my head, I kept thinking of the decision and I could actually visualize the two possible outcomes... as if they were two huge rocks sitting in front of me and I needed to push one of them over. That was all I could see really. Just the overwhelming existence of the choices themselves and not the nuances of what might help me actually decide what to do.

At the same time, I resisted making a list. List-making seems such a dry, tedious, inane task... a whole lot of busy-work like elementary school teachers who used to make us copy sentences repeatedly in cursive writing on dotted lines in little workbooks. When I was younger and lived more in the shadows of my parents, I often struggled with decision-making. 'Should I drop swim team or not?' 'Should I take Economics or not?' 'Should I go to this college or that one?' I labored over decisions often to the point of frozen indecisiveness. It is possible to become so immersed in the decision-making process itself that the process becomes a place of inertia rather than an impetus towards growth and perspective and learning. I could (and still can) research a decision to death before feeling like I am equipped well enough to make a solid, well-informed decision. And these days, with the breadth of the internet and all of the information (and misinformation) that you can gather there, this phase of acquiring 'enough' information can go on indefinitely. I had a wonderful professor once who told me that, while he was at Berkeley, he used to go and sit on a rock high above the ocean and sit and think when he had to make a decision. It was a place for him to get perspective, to ponder possibilities. Yet, he told me, he found himself sitting too much and doing too little. He finally realized that sometimes you need to just act and let the rest fall into place. You can think forever about something, think it into oblivion... and that is the same place you will end up if the thought-process never pans out.

So, when I had these crises of indecisiveness in high school and beyond, my father would sit me down and tell me: "Make a list." I would roll my eyes at him and tell him I wanted his advice. "Make a list," he would repeat as if that was the be-all-end-all statement. I resented him for that statement, for that 'stupid' advice. I am sure that, many a time, I would huff and walk away theatrically and frustrated. But after calming down, and after finding no way out of my quandary, I would sit down and.... make a list.

Usually these lists would consist of two sides, often of the pros and cons of a particular decision. Sometimes, in the process of writing things out, I would realize that the decision was more complicated and required a sort of spreadsheet. I actually recall making a rather complex Excel spreadsheet when I was accepted into three different Ph.D. programs and couldn't decide which one to attend. I assigned different weights to various aspects of the decision and, in the end, gave each school a point total. It seemed too mathematical to be helpful. I am one to make decisions from my gut because I trust this inner sense that I have about things. Yet, looking back, my analysis of this decision was spot on... and I made the right decision for me at the time. Yes, it was a more mathematical analysis of myself than usual. Still, I was forced to confront myself because I was forced to put my thoughts down onto something... to expose myself, even if only to myself. That in and of itself can be revealing. We can 'write ourselves' into being, just as Escher knew.

There is something about making a list. There is something about writing out the jumble of thoughts that clog your head and seeing them in front of you. It organizes them, for one. It also makes them real. It is easy to dismiss certain thoughts. It is much harder to dismiss something once it has traveled from your brain to your hand through the pen and onto the paper into something concrete, something now separate from yourself, something that exists for others to see if you were to share it with them. It can be highly illuminating to write this process down. Often, you think you know... or are sure you know... what you feel about a certain decision, but, in the course of writing, you find (or see) that there is an altogether different dominating thought... or that something you thought was insignificant is actually huge... or that something else keeps repeating itself, perhaps in different form, but it keeps appearing like a blinking alert that you should have sighted all along.

Writing things down makes them real. You can avoid a decision if it knocks back and forth in your head like a wave. Or if you put the decision at the back of your head and the information-gathering process at the front as I previously mentioned. When you write things down, you realize you didn't need to gather all the information in the world about a particular topic in order to know how you felt about it. You learn to trust what is in your head because you see it and can read it back to yourself and may even be surprised to learn what you knew already.

Why write things down when we can just enter everything into a Smartphone or an electronic organizer or an online calendar? In my opinion, there is something psychological that happens as thoughts travel through your body, as they are forced to manifest from something intangible and shapeless and isolated in your head into letters and words and phrases scratched permanently onto a piece of paper. In a review of the book, How Writing Shapes Thinking: A Study of Teaching and Learning, Christopher Burnham writes of how research supports my hunch:
1) writing creates a permanent record and allows rethinking and revising over an extended period of time; 2) writing requires explicit expression so that meaning is clear in various contexts; 3) writing requires organizing ideas and developing relationships between ideas; and 4) writing requires active, engaged thinking that explores the implications and challenges unexamined assumptions. (Christopher Burnham, Review, Writing Program Administration, vol. 15, nos. 1-2, Fall/Winter 1991)
His review continues on to explain how the researchers study helped them to recognize that writing not only helps us digest old information, but prepares us for new information. Thereby, writing opens up the door to expansion: of thought, of knowledge, of perspective, of understanding, of self, of the world.

Writing things down is not only helpful in decision-making...or interpreting. It is an integral process of reflection and consciousness. And not only in the process of understanding literature or making a sound business decision. It also strengthens relationships.

My boyfriend writes me notes. Not just 'hey sweetie, have a great day!' dashed off on the back of an old receipt but long, thought-out, earnest articulations of his deepest feelings and hopes. Reading them moves me profoundly. His love becomes a story that we share through its written expression -- one which he makes real by the writing and I feel as real by seeing and holding and rereading it over and over again. These are very tangible pieces of our relationship, of our love. I treasure them because of this concreteness. I also treasure them because of the time and effort it takes to actually sit down and express the tingling in your soul. It is not an easy thing to do... or to say. I love that he is so dedicated to "us" that he makes us even more real. And that he preserves these thoughts for all time by doing so. Why do we write our names in the sand? Carve our initials in a tree? It is the same instinct, the same 'making real' outside of what we know and feel internally.

As an English teacher, I have always asked my students to do journal-writes. My prompts run the gamut from making literary connections, to broadening our reading to touch their personal experiences, and even to completely unrelated mind exercises or philosophical questions. So often, they express resistance and annoyance at arriving to class to see me writing out such a prompt on the board. But then they get writing and I can see them stopping from time to time, peering out but really looking inward attempting to verbalize all of the hazy indistinctness that lies in a blur in their heads. I know this feeling very well. I also know their initial resistance. It is the same resistance I once felt at my father's urging to 'make a list.' When the thoughts are in your head, it seems pointless to have to write them down. They are already there... or are they? Even if they existed in a logical expression in your head (which I would argue they don't), they exist only for you. Life is about sharing our ideas... and about being able to clearly express that muddle of thoughts in our heads to others. This is what I find to be the fundamental problem for high school freshmen in their writing. They struggle to translate what they think and what they are beginning to analyze and interpret and infer into something that makes sense to another person unfamiliar with the inside of their brains. This is a frustrating process and some of the kids want to give up. I try to be patient and encouraging and to act as an additional translator, often modeling ways of articulating thoughts. Writing things down and doing it over and over again... and using your own hand to do so... is really the only way to overcome this breakdown of communication, this loss in translation.

I think a lot about writing... being a writer. But even if I wasn't, I think it would fascinate me. It has structured and guided so much of my life. My grandmother and I used to write letters to each other. It was a process of reaching out... for both of us. Writing our thoughts down on paper seemed secretive and bold, intimate and expansive all at the same time. We both wanted to understand ourselves and to express that self to another human... to someone who cared... and to be accepted. Seeing thoughts written in the unique handwriting of those we love seems naked and personal and speaks of the personality of that person. When I read a handwritten note or letter, I can hear the writer's voice... I can see his face and his expressions, his gestures, his smile or concern. Not only the thoughts, but the person himself becomes more real to me.

Like me, my grandmother wrote poetry. She didn't get published, but she would often include her poems in a letter. I realize now that this was a sort of publishing of her poems. An audience need only consist of one caring listener. This is one such poem that she sent me long ago:


Spring leaps too hig
for me to follow

The heat of summer
cracks my brittle bones

Fall's riot tramples over me

But under the cold, frost-
hardened wings of winter

Lies the kernel of whatever

I possess.

There was an article in the New York Times back in April of this year entitled "The Case for Cursive." It argued, among other things, that there was a loss of something artistic in the decline of those who can and do write in cursive handwriting. Amongst the many comments, a number of people spoke of how they were not sorry to see the death of cursive. One reader wrote: "Cursive is NOT a 21st century skill. Language is constantly changing and evolving. It is not, nor has it ever been static and fixed. Neither has the way we express language ever been static and fixed. What we have witnessed and are continuing to witness with cursive being a dying art, is the constant, natural evolution of how humans communicate. Cursive no longer fits any need, so it is falling by the wayside."

It is true that cursive is not a skill required in the world we now live in. It is also true that language and communication are always changing and evolving. There is certainly a beauty to the malleability of language, to how words are added, to the ebb and flow of phrases and sayings, etc. I wonder, though, about the emphasis on 21st century 'skills.' Is that the only reason to write in cursive or to hand-write a letter? Is it only useful if it can 'get you ahead'? I fear the loss of those things I find most beneficial about writing things by hand -- about the self-evaluative process, about the process of thought, about the translation of thought, about the concretizing of self and love and living, about the uniqueness of communication, about the expression of each and every one of our personalities, about intimate gestures, about what is gained by the investment of time and self and a non-digitalized output. And so I will continue... to make lists, to compose poems by hand, to read love notes that feel like they come straight from my boyfriend's heart... I will continue to write things down.

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