Why Be the Wind
I’m a middle-grade teacher in an alternative school, but I feel like a lobbyist.
Every single day, I’m gusting the case for a cause: literacy — and not just any literacy.
We’re talking about a force of nature that moves people and things…the kind that shapes your mind, changes your life and transforms the world.
It’s the kind of literacy where you actually become a significant player, a creator, an influencer, a language artist.
In our class, this means establishing your voice and preparing to launch your ideas out there into the wide technicolor yonder, engaging in the most important conversation going on.
It’s a conversation that will determine the future of individuals, society and our planet.
That future, regardless of what it seems like to adults or anyone else, matters to young people. What you say, purport, tweet, write and publish has impact. It is pressure…personal doctrine…social religion. It affects susceptible readers and their decisions and forms them.
Although teens may not fully recognize or articulate that influence yet, ideas are what spins their world. Money, relationships, power, entertainment, questions, answers, every idea we know or can conceive — they are all dependent on language.
Young as they are, my students aren’t deaf to the conversation going on around them. In fact, they are tuned in and talking about it pretty much all the time. They carry it with them in their back pockets, in their hands, on their screens.
That it’s a “great” conversation doesn’t always mean it’s good. It is a driving force in all directions.
That’s why my purpose with young writers is simple and crucial: Rather than being a leaf tossed by the wind, be the wind.
What follows is how 22 writing students are gathering speed.
The points are theirs; the commentary, ours.
>> 17 Ways to Add Power to Writing <<
1) Write — a lot.
Even if you aren’t working on an article or manuscript, write: morning pages, daily freewrites, journal entries, scribbles in your writer’s notebook, messages on your phone, late night rambles.
The more you honor what your senses take in and your brain connects, the more they will both deliver.
2) Observe intentionally.
Soak it all in. Absorb your environment. Be alert. Eavesdrop. (This is actually an assignment: Go to a public place where there are people. Listen. Hear. Sense. Feel. Perceive. Then come tell us what people are concerned about, what matters to them. What’s going on in “the great conversation”?)
To this end…
“Listen. Prepare. Speak up” is our bulletin board manifesto.
3) Analyze writing styles.
When you are reading and find yourself struck, ask, “What just happened? What is this writer doing that captures my attention? What triggered a response in me?”
Remember the event. Make a note. Consider employing your discovery in your own writing.
4) More importantly, analyze writing purposes.
A huge part of literacy is media smarts. For my students, this means asking questions about bias and slant.
What does this writer want me to believe?
Why is this writer putting these particular words in front of me in this way?
What’s being sold?
As we examine the medium for the message, whether it’s typeface/font size, word choice, images, attitude or theme, we see an exchange taking place. What’s being proposed? What are we receiving? What are we agreeing to?
Readers — and writers — need to acknowledge this is going on so we fully participate in the exchange and aren’t unwitting leaves at the mercy of someone else’s currents.
5) Analyze human nature — your own and others’.
We’re driven, as humans, to do two things beyond physical survival: try to understand (largely others, but also self) and desire to be known (appreciated, loved.) This is how we come to belonging.
Paradoxically, we engage in two opposing quests: self-deception (justification) and being seen as ____________ (other-deception).
The interplay of these tensions reveals our human nature.
It is fascinating…endlessly so.
Great writers capitalize on portraying, uncovering, and questioning human nature. We don’t want to stop at who did what. We want the full deal: why?
6) Record your moments, impressions, everything.
In our writing class, we create this visualization:
Imagine a virtual library suspended somewhere above and to one side of your mind. It contains everything you’ve consciously experienced — music, lyrics, words, sensory intake, incidents you’ve witnessed, emotion you’ve felt, the lies and truths you’ve heard — and a lot of unconscious exposure, too.
Although this library is the repository of the material your brain, spirit and body take up, it is also your resource for the original stuff you synthesize.
Your brain is a perpetual motion machine, resolving dissonance, seeking connection, sorting bits and pieces of living data, often while you are unaware. It’s your “maker lab.”
When you take a moment to create a record of something unusual, as well as the ordinary-but-experienced-deeply, you create a pattern-like agreement with your brain:
I notice. I make the effort to record. You, Brain, store and create.
What comes forth is anybody’s guess…but it just might be art, or beauty, or innovation, or genius, or a match that lights a revolution.
7) Read — a lot.
Reading pretty much opens up the universe from the tiniest particle to the most abstract, cosmic theory and everything in between. The more you read, the more universal you become and the more you have available for withdrawal from “the library.”
I encourage my students to read widely and daily and, crucially, beyond the cereal box or Instagram feed.
Following a theory of Daniel Taylor, I also advise them to recognize stories everywhere, to consciously seek and know whole stories, give humane space for broken ones, and avoid those that are bent.
I also encourage my young writers to read with the intention of healing all three by applying intelligence and heart so that good perpetuates, brokenness is mended, and bent comes around to life-giving.
8) Read your own writing. Check it not just for spelling and grammar mistakes, but for meaning mistakes.
The essence of this is going to sound like your mom or grandma, long live their sage advice:
“If you are going to send out messages, be sure they are true and lead people toward safety and goodness and not away from it.”
In English classes we do plenty of editing and revision. Reading out loud to someone else often catches the errors and glitches in flow.
If we’re going to do all that work of excavating worthy ideas and stories from our minds, we would also do well to pass our writing by our conscience. Are we saying what we really mean?
This is as important in fiction as in non-fiction. Writing with authenticity is not incongruent with writing from a bedrock of universal truth — even when we’re portraying the departure from it.
My students don’t always know when they are being lied to or manipulated and that concerns me. All I can do, for now, is to teach them key questions.
- Does this feel right to me?
- Does this align with what’s kept me safe in the past?
- What would my most trusted adults think about this?
- Would I feel good teaching this to a kid I care about?
- Is this life-giving?
To keep my own writing in check, I often reference powerful advice from a time when a key relationship was in trouble:
Speak love, speak truth or speak less.
Ideas have consequences. Make the ideas as grounded in truth as we can and the consequences will follow suit.
9) Find mentors you can trust.
A wise health coach friend, Jim Rhoades, once told me:
We are the sum of what we eat, drink, breathe, bathe in, apply to our skin, think, take into our minds and who we spend our time with.
I pass this on to my students. (I should probably update it and add “smoke and inject.” Sigh.)
Who we spend our time with is especially important for developing souls — like children…and teens…and adults — including when it comes to writing.
This goes for mentors we actually speak to, and the ones who come into our periphery from any medium, online or in print.
It’s a given that we model ourselves after our role models. Pick well.
10) Ask for critiques.
When asked to explain “critique” to a group of students, one young man offered this:
“A critique is advice about how to make your writing better from one person’s perspective.”
Our guideline for writer’s circles is “two stars (things you like) and a question.” This is with the #1 goal being encouragement.
When the #1 goal is publishability, curiosity still makes a great tool for improvement. How? Who? When? Why? and What? may leave more room for growth and meaningful re-visioning than simply telling a writer what’s deficient.
Either way, another set of eyes and mind can peel off the blinders we sometimes develop as writers living very, very close to our writing.
11) Appreciate feedback, even when it feels negative.
I just came from a student-teacher conference with a 13 year old boy. We often start interviews by establishing our common humanity.
I’m eager to help. It’s a privilege to be your teacher. Let’s learn from each other.
As we talked about literature he was reading and liked/didn’t like, we came to this understanding (his words):
“Appreciate” doesn’t mean you have to love it. It just means you can see the effort someone put into getting you to see from their perspective.
Even when there are lots of questions to ask and a fair amount of suggestions to give — enough that a student might think she’s failed or his writing is deficient in some way — having an agreement that “You’re the creator. I’m just looking in as your reader, offering the best ideas I can come up with. Ultimately the choice is yours” feels a whole lot more constructive than, “This doesn’t conform to my standards.”
Either way, we can appreciate the critique.
Note: There are times when I serve as editor for students. We agree to this before I work through their writing. I still ask more questions than point out problems. And I never use red pen. Writing is an offering of self. It feels important to tread carefully.
12) Believe in yourself.
I recently shared this formula for developing confidence with my students, gleaned from Benjamin Hardy’s article, Confidence: 2 Reasons Most People Don’t Have It.
Confidence is based on two decisions: congruence and completion.
Making sure your actions match your beliefs is congruence.
Making sure you finish what you say you’re going to do results in completion.
The combination of the two makes for self-confidence, a prize for the junior high set and adult population alike.
Writing from a place of self-belief makes us bold enough to raise our voices and use words worthy of being heard.
13) Appreciate other people’s art.
Kids with apparent linguistic-verbal intelligence tend to do well in school. So much of what happens in classrooms depends on reading and writing, which they like and can do.
Creative work, though, occurs in a myriad of media, genres, and forms. Building oneself as a language artist means developing fluency in humanity, and humanity spans wide. It is not a narrow band of curricular outcomes; it isn’t limited to the intelligentsia; it is not the domain of power-brokers; it isn’t even confined by definitions of what constitutes art.
I believe it is all honest human endeavor, and valuing this diversity of enterprise, appreciating it, makes deposits of inestimable value into one’s personal archive of revelations about what it means to be alive, dead, or striving toward one or the other state of being.
Birthing babies, growing crops, fixing machinery, discovering previously unknown phenomena, designing fish ponds, cultivating seeds, finishing furniture, counseling the troubled, preserving culture, binding wounds — all are among the arts of being human.
The crowning art, perhaps, is appreciating these arts, taking note, and according worth to the artists…then writing from that rich store of expansive, true humanity.
14) Listen to other writers’ experiences and advice about the craft.
It’s the campfire effect — sitting around a glow of common passion, exchanging stories.
It warms a writer’s soul.
And, it’s a little bit mesmerizing.
15) Share your writing.
Once my cells are replenished by the nutrients in the carrot a farmer has grown, the work is complete.
Once a poem or story or article or book is consumed by a reader, the writer’s work has come full circle.
We can’t have this particular fulfillment unless we’re putting our writing into the hands of another.
16) Build your vocabulary.
We play a game in our school using coins.
Everyday words are worth a penny.
Utilitarian words are worth a nickel.
Fitting words are worth a dime.
Tasty words are worth a quarter.
Powerful words are worth a dollar.
We start with the simplest of sentences — something subject-verb, for instance. “The cat ran.” In this state, it’s worth about eleven cents.
Then we try to enrich the value of the sentence by upping the richness of the words.
The kids love it. It’s true that too many “dress-ups” begin to hang heavy on the meaning, but expanding our vocabulary also expands our capacity to communicate with precision.
The right word, drawn from many, can amount to a powerful sum.
17) Build your character.
As I write this, I realize I’ve never really defined “character” with my students. I don’t have to. They just get it.
They also know how important it is to develop their distinctive way of being, way of doing, way of seeing, and way of giving. I tell them so every opportunity I get.
Since each individual is inherently priceless, this isn’t as much about aligning to an outside standard of sparkling personality or flawless behavior as it is about being the best “you” you can be.
We freely talk about the standard of life-giving/life-honoring ideas, purposes, choices, and mindsets. We value growth and being part of each other’s development.
Building character allows for the well of oneself to be deep and filled with life-giving water.
And it’s from that well that our writing flows.
That’s water for a thirsty reader in a someways parched world.
Think about your writing.
Think about feedback you’ve received.
Think about where you’d like to go with your ideas.
From our list, select a relevant point.
Or, choose a possible antidote to a current frustration.
See what a week or month of implementing that choice can do.
Practise your power.
Whatever you choose, keep writing.
Be with wind.
Thank you for reading,
Heather (and friends)
PS If you would consider sharing this anywhere, but particularly with aspiring writer-friends, my crew and I will all be grateful!