Man writing memoir

“Compassion is a verb.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

I teach writing. My community college students cannot escape my class—or at least the course I teach—if they want to graduate or transfer to most universities. I teach freshman composition now but have taught other courses as well. One such course took me to the roads.

I used to drive to senior citizen centres in neighbouring counties to guide students in the art of memoir or, as the course title suggested, writing the story of their lives. Prior to my arrival, the course, guided by a former student, functioned more as a social outlet than a writing class. The members enjoyed reading their weekly stories written to a specific prompt, anticipating an audience of supportive smiles.

When I replaced the ailing instructor, I had no idea what to do. Having never taught such a course, I simply showed up bearing creative writing flourishes and techniques gathered from composition courses.

While some balked at my attempts to teach what one retired English teacher scoffed at as “grammar” lessons, most were eager to learn. These students had long, rich family histories marked by the depths and heights of living. Not everyone had the commensurately variable and versatile expression to relate their lively, often painful memories. Some wanted to write to be read by more than polite, obligated and curious family or class members.

William Faulkner understood the desire of the writer as crafter-artist to “arrest motion, which is life, …and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.”

Those students of time knew their stories travelled. Their histories served not only to document an era but to prove the timelessness of the human condition as one of desire and suffering. They wanted to be read in order to move others and be part of another human experience—to touch people.

Teaching those historians yielded fond memories. Not only did I enjoy some wonderfully woven tales of personal history but also of national history, from a 93-year-old’s homey love poetry and tales of train rides through the Midwest, including tears over a sandwich from a stranger during the Great Depression, to the 80-something near blind man’s sophisticated flash fiction, full of existential angst and irony.

And the rewards rained reciprocally. Like that hitched ride on the train licking the succulent green of springy hills speeding by—nature’s salve for the ache of a starved nation—those students lapped up the joy of a well-placed dash, the debate of comma placement, and, most of all the respect afforded them, they who were worthy of the lesson.

From dabblers to genealogists, these writers-turned-critics appreciated a fellow writer sharing secrets of the craft, one who had expectations of them, and did not patronize them by throwing bones to keep them busy—how the elderly are often treated. These were writers, great and small.

And somehow teacher and students alike left the course changed. I know I did. I learned that writing is participation in the greater good beyond the self. It’s the practice of not merely communicating but communing, writer and reader reminded of the same timeless story.

Writing taps into the truth that we knew and lost: that we are one.

That lost connection is desire wired in us from birth, the suffering that the Buddha deems the condition of existence. It derives from the illusion of separation—that we are separate. Writing attempts to minister to that illusion by easing the pain, satisfying the urge and ever seeking of the other through compassionate giving. To give ourselves over—in language.

Writing courses unwittingly deliver teachers and students to that truth. My senior students and I were philosophers practicing writing as a gift. We shared not only lessons and stories but the vision that writing produces through doing it: the let-me-see-through-your-eyes-for-a-while leap in another’s factual, sensorial being. As writers and readers, we exercised compassion and empathy.

I rode that train with that 93-year-old as I and the others group-read his story and ached. I still do in moments of reflection. And several members still share their lives with me via Facebook since the time I drifted on in my career eight years ago. We crafted friendships as well as paragraphs in the shared experience of perfecting skills.

Perhaps the wisdom of age taught them, but they understood—and still do—that writing well is more than pride. They sensed that connecting to another mind is the aim of writing and the mode of travel to the reader’s imagination is language—travelling across sentences. As such, those sentences must be clear to avoid mistaken turns by mis-direction or ambiguity. The sign posts must be clear. Though unlocking the secrets of language is not an easy task.

However, we must try. As Joyce Carol Oates claims, “The effort of memorable art is to evoke in the reader or spectator emotions appropriate to that effort.” And the effort is worth it. When our writing moves others, we affect, share and relate, thus confirming our oneness or perhaps experiencing that oneness as that ancient forgotten memory.

Reaching out to readers is the attempt to recall that unity. The writing student—and each of us—struggles to be understood through the code of language, a tricky bridge that requires constant constructing, honing, and refining to support the weight of ideas and experiences on which we convey ourselves to others. Trickier still because writing is recursive, ever moving us backward and forward in thought and word—and in time. Hard to nail it down as language itself is slippery.

It lives. The English language has long, seemingly stable roots, Greek, Latin, Anglo Saxon and French, mostly. But words time travel. They live, die and transmigrate. A word travels through time carrying bits of all who ever spoke, thought or wrote it. To aim true, no matter the arrow’s target, is no small feat. How do we make the reader understand us, the words we choose or sentence patterns we create—the music and cadence, flow and pause, rhyme and reason—all to lure and lull readers into a world that hopefully they will visit and enjoy for a while?

So much motion in the words we toss on the page, tidy up and pass before the reader’s eyes.

And just like any activity performed under the gaze of another, we become self-conscious and doubt. The faces of students semester after semester attest to that fact. Their eyes search mine: “Am I getting through?” The struggle is enormous. They have not studied language at its roots, history, philosophy, theory and materiality. Plain old grammar mystifies them.

Most have not yet begun to unlock language’s power.

“Every word both separates and links; it depends on the writer whether it becomes wound or balm, curse or promise,” Elie Wiesel writes. Indeed, the writer wields that power—if the reader reads. If we write well, write the reality of being human, readers will read.

The effort to learn to write well—inch closer to competency—is worthwhile, for the attempt to reach another truly matters. We crave that union above all else.

“Writing is a gift,” I tell my freshman composition students. “To be a good writer, you have to be giving.” And not only in the show-don’t-tell of narrative with its word-painted scenes of silent movie memories, exported to an eager audience waiting to be entertained, delighted and struck in the heart of the mind. They must go beyond the conversation they have with the page with desire to please the watcher—to get out of themselves. The reward: the reader’s hardy laugh or singe of fear or anger or some other universal human experience.

That sharing fends off loneliness.

The attention they give one another—writer and reader—in the mystic of words is the love story: one human hearing another, sitting with her for a moment, sharing hope, vision, sorrow and the myriad other moments, just to be one human together.

Yes, writing is a gift—if we write to be read. So my students have taught me.

image: Mature student in class via Shutterstock