As Paul gets closer and closer to starting school, I find myself longing for college. One of my favorite things in the whole world is sitting in a classroom on a cloudy day, drinking a cup of coffee, and listening to people talk about literature. I miss hearing the thoughts that have been brewing in peoples’ minds as they pondered the book they were reading.
I just miss college. Plain and simple.
It’s a good thing I procrastinated on posting Kevin’s guest post, then, huh? I’ll admit it, because i’ve admitted it to him: Sometimes reading his fabulous blogging makes my brain hurt…but it’s because my brain has been a big lazy, Ally McBeal-watching couch potato lately. He writes with academic flare and gives your brain a little “wake the heck up” slap when he does so. I asked Kevin to write about his blogging. Why does he do it? What does he get out of it?
What I got out of it was a beautifully written, insightful blog post…perfect for this cloudy day. If you’re not a blogger yet, perhaps you’ll let Kevin change your mind. Also, it’s his birthday today, so you should leave him a ‘Happy Birthday’ in the comments!
Years ago, while visiting California, I grabbed a copy of The Independent, Santa Barbara’s free weekly newspaper, to read an interview with T. Coraghessen Boyle, author of Riven Rock and The Tortilla Curtain. Have you ever experienced a stranger saying something that describes you perfectly? I did that day. Though I’ve long since lost the paper and can’t muster an exact quote (and it’s not archived online), I remember the gist.
Boyle, who teaches creative writing at USC, admitted he writes about political and social issues in his award-winning novels because, until he writes his ideas, he doesn’t know what they are. As soon as I read that, a bell rang in my mind. I, too, often write without a clear idea what I have to say, because my thoughts are by nature ephemeral. Until I crystallize them into words, I have no more idea what I think than any random stranger.
Since I started writing my blog earlier this year, I’ve progressed in my ambitions. Initially, I intended to simply resume the book column I wrote for the student paper in graduate school. But once I started writing, I realized I had much more to say than that. Though I still review books, my media and culture commentaries have become much more prominent in the process.
I write three 750-word blog entries each week (though a new job recently made me miss two consecutive deadlines). That word count equals three pages in standard format. Thus I write as much every two or three weeks as many college professors expect undergraduates to write per semester. And I do it all for one reason: so I can understand what I think, and maybe hear from others who will help refine my thinking.
The key to writing for this purpose is remaining open to surprise. When I taught college English, my students often struggled to start writing because they thought they had to begin with a clear vision. Nothing could be further from the truth. The act of writing, turning abstract thoughts into concrete words, is an invaluable learning tool. And nobody learns more from the process than the writer.
Peter Elbow, in Writing Without Teachers, describes a process he calls freewriting. He simply sets himself a timer and pours his ideas onto the page as fast as he can, without correcting or censoring. He does not want, in this case to write finished work. His only purpose is to get all ideas onto the page as fast as he can; he’ll have time later to polish and refine.
An eight-dollar Wal-Mart kitchen timer makes a good tool for this. Most cell phones today also have timer functions. For those inexperienced with this format, ten minutes makes a good deadline. I can usually hand-write about 300 words in ten minutes, or type about 500 words. If I can overcome the internal censor who edits work on the fly, I often surprise myself with ideas and juxtapositions I never knew were percolating in my own head.
I recommend this for anybody who wants to improve themselves. No skill, not even specific job skills, matter like the ability to refine ideas and communicate them to others. World-changing ideas, like general relativity, democracy, and the personal computer all survive because somebody wrote them down. Who can say how many other good ideas vanished because we have no written record?
My blog may not change the world. But it has certainly changed me, and set me on the track to possibly change the world. Turning indefinite ideas into solid words could do the same for you.