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  • Writer's pictureAnne Heffron


I had an idea about how to show people just how easy it is for them to be wonderful writers, so I decided to play a game in my classes. I took the first eight sentences from Tillie Olsen's story I Stand Here Ironing and at random picked a word from each one: iron, wish, I, youngster, help, good, mother, nineteen. I told people how I had gathered the words, but I didn't read the story to them. I listed the eight words and asked everyone to write a sentence for each one--whatever came to them. The sentences did not have to connect to each other. The idea was to see the word, listen for what sentence came to mind, and then to write it down.

I gave the group a few minutes, and asked everyone to read what they had written. I did this in three classes, and every sentence was a gem. What do I mean by gem? I mean it was clear and said something, more often than not with style and, like in the movie Slackers, with flair. Each group of sentences so clearly belonged to the person who had written them. Yup. There you are.

I promise my writers that what happens in class stays in class, so I don't have any examples to share. You could always do the exercise yourself, then read the sentences out loud, pat yourself on the back, and say, Gosh. Anne was right! I'm a great sentence maker!

We did the process a second time with eight sentences from the introduction David Shih wrote to his book Chinese Prodigal: A Memoir in Eight Arguments. The words were idea, I, weeks, what, question, answer, nothing, nature (doesn't the list alone make you want to read his book?!). The sentences people wrote were just as alive and real as the first time.

The point I wanted to make was that when you aren't thinking about who might read your work, when you write from only what is inside of your own influence, your writing is you, and is therefore inherently beautiful.

I had people draw a pen filled with ink. That is you, I said. Everything you write that comes from that ink will sound like you. That is your power, your truth.

Sometimes it can be so hard to write because we fear no one is interested in what we have to say. That makes the ink reluctant to leave a mark, to show up at all. I picture a child who has not spoken for years and years and who, out of the blue, says to her mother, I want to tell you something. Would the mother not drop everything, drop most likely to her knees and say, I am listening. Tell me everything.

What if we treated ourselves like that? What if when we had the urge to share something, to write something, we fell to our own knees in recognition of the miracle of communication.

I have something I want to tell you.

I am listening.

I write to prove to myself I am listening. It feels important, this relationship of trust I am establishing with myself. If I can hear myself, then I can more clearly hear you.

And when I hear you, that's the birth of music.

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