“A Calm Sea Never a Captain Makes”
Sometimes I hate my boat; however, hating a needy pile of wood, sail, and line is less distressing than what it teaches me about myself. My trying to remove the encrusted fossils of marine life from the hull after eight months in drydock is a harsh reminder that ten minutes of a simple power-washing on Labor Day would have negated the hours of cursing, scraping and crawling on the back-stabbing scree of a New England boatyard that occupied my day yesterday. Years ago, I blithely and absent-mindedly watched as a friend showed me how to make a wire splice. Tomorrow I am paying some old salt two hundred dollars to splice some wire needed to haul my halyard. Damn me! I should be that old salt by now, not some humble yuppie with a romantic notion of the sea, willing to pay twice just to learn once. The list could go on, but so would my self-loathing. Sometimes too, we hate what we write because we know that we did not listen to the old curmudgeon or (in my case) Sister Jean Beatrice droning in front of us in English class about the virtues of punctuation. We write and ineffectually remember that there is something missing from our repertoire of skills--skills that we learned once but cast off as detritus from a bygone age.
In my youth I learned a lot about sailing and boatbuilding, but I never really went to sea on my own, and so my skills were not reinforced by the granite memory of experience. The dream remained alive, while the lost knowledge now looms like an apparition in the distance, like the ghost of an early death, haunting and enchanting in the same breath. I am relearning and re-remembering because I have to regain the footing of my nautical dream and make that first new turn out of the harbor. As a writer, don't neglect the small details--the placing of commas, the quotes within quotes, the run-ons, the introductory phrases, conjunctions and pronouns, colons and semi-colons--that help you construct, repair and clarify your thoughts and ideas, and somehow keep together the sweeping power of great poetry and literature. They are the bolts and screws and planks that hold the boat together.
Everything you've learned about writing is important and useful to the crafting of your words. It was, after all, a simple wire splice keeping me in port! If you are young, cling to what you learn and keep it close to your heart. If you are old, unearth and restore the memories you need to face the day and the empty page with confidence and courage. Build upon what you already know and sail towards your own dreams. Ultimately, a Captain is only made at sea, not on land. As an English teacher, I drive my students crazy by writing long preambles to my assignments; I hide the details of what is due tomorrow in a labyrinth of reflections, observations and admonitions. They beg me to just highlight in bold what they need to do. I get away with it because I can. The reality is more difficult with the summer writing communities. No one “teacher” is forcing you to read or write anything. I just assume you want to become a better writer.
I write because I love to write, but I, too, have a long way to go before I can call myself a captain. The few knots I know won't serve me in every situation I will face. My hope is that you are willing to learn as well--and learn more than I can possibly ever teach you! The simple act of sustained and attentive writing will make you a better writer, but to combine the act of writing with the focused study of the craft of writing can make you a great writer--a writer who is truly ready to face the open sea! Too much of education separates the bird from the wing, and this is especially true in our more common ways of teaching writing. My children spend hours of homework time circling prepositional phrases and adverbial clauses in remarkably generic workbooks. I appreciate that they are learning the elemental nature and grammar of language, but, in my cynical moments, I marvel at how lucky their teachers are that the whole class needs work on the same mechanics. I wonder if those teachers are aware that they are creating a flock of awkward, flightless birds dawdling around on barren dung heaps because the skills they are taught are not tested out in the moiling waters of an angry ocean. There is often nothing to show for all of their labor but a grade and a potentially higher MCAS score.
The skills we teach our students must be useful in real situations, and those students need to see how those skills have practical value in their personal odyssey as real writers. The poems, songs, stories, reflections, essays and narratives that I am asking you to write in your writing community are my attempts to let you go to sea on your own and discover both your greatness and your limitations. Without an adventurous journey, it is all too easy to lose the incentive to understand the workings of the viscera that keeps our writing alive. We are all at different places as writers. If Sister Jean Beatrice is no longer around to walk the aisle between the desks with her ever ready ruler, there needs to be a fire in your belly of your own creation, driving you forward, While you listen and learn.