“What I’m really trying to say is…”

Instead of starting class with our computers out, I handed them a one-page photocopy.

“I’ve been reading this book called Writing Without Teachers, and I think some of the advice might help you with your essay drafts.”

“Writing without teachers? Sounds great,” one student quipped.

“I know how you feel,” I said. “Sometimes, when I’m writing, I wish I wasn’t there, either.”

I read them a few key items from the list:

Avoid doing all writing or doing all sitting-back-thinking. And above all avoid being caught in the middle where you write only a couple sentences and stop and wonder and worry.

Don’t let beginnings be a problem. Write through them by brute force. I often have to use all-purpose beginnings: “And another thing…” “The thing of it is…” “What I want to talk about is…” “You want to know something?” At the end you can write better beginnings.

“Who writes their first sentence, and then immediately deletes it? Who does this half a dozen, a dozen times?” Much of the class raised their hands along with me. “This book says, try letting go don’t worry about getting it perfect the first time. Allow yourself to write the crap that will get you to the good stuff.”

Several students shook their heads emphatically no. That’s not how they operate, they said. They want to get it right the first time.

“I get it,” I told them. “I wrote a 15-page article this summer, and I probably wrote half a dozen different intros before I thought I found the right one. All the while there was a voice in my head saying, ‘this is not right.’ ”

“But when one of you is stuck in a writing rut, the question I always ask is, “well, what are you really trying to say?” And nine times out of ten, what comes out of your mouth is exactly what you should be typing. So, why not just start your writing with that phrase? And we’ll get rid of it later.”

We start with outlines, and we finish with peer editing and revision, but somewhere in the middle we need to set ourselves free in order to find our voice. I hope that “What I’m really trying to say” helps us get there.

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