12/28/2013 05:00 pm ET Updated Feb 27, 2014

Finding The Words

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Recently, someone asked me: after teaching "all these novels," isn't it about time that I write one of my own? Haven't I learned enough, after years of watching the twists and turns of narrative? Isn't it time to make my own foray into the wild arrangements?

The question, posed lightly enough, nagged at me for a while afterwards -- as if it was that easy. Hmmph. In dark moments, when I stare at the wall of papers and inch toward the emergency exit, it is almost silly -- water, water everywhere and all that. When, and should an English teacher find their own words?

When I face a wall of essays, all of those possibilities, that story I wanted to try, that poem that is just in the next room seem to retreat that much further away. There is always the this (and that, and the other thing) to get done, and the writing waits. And waits.

Many English teachers get into teaching out of their abject love for the language and the things one learns to do with words. I have been lucky. I choose books that I want to teach, I get to talk about them, and in this way, re-live the discovery: Gatsby was James Gatz! And he was poor! Meursault shot the man! Macbeth actually listened to his wife! Every time I begin again, there is something to marvel at in the well-oiled, burnished-by-time-and-the-academy machinery of a text roaring to life.

But in the business of books and reading and talking, there is a space that remains -- the doing. Are teachers meant just to read and read and read? Are the old masters to be left alone to the practice of writing, while we watch and marvel from the sidelines? I know that everyone has a story to tell, but perhaps it is an English teacher's closeness to the words that renders the wistfulness almost ironic.

Teachers model so much -- what it means to show up everyday, what a dialogue can and should sound like, how to talk and act responsibly with text and each other, how to read and be excited about it. But I do wonder what my students glean from me about the life of reading and writing beyond my teacher cardigans and keys around my neck.

I teach the forms of an essay, and impress the point that an essay is one more way of training the brain to be clear to someone else. I teach responses, annotation, narrative style and literary elements. I teach that one can and should pore over the surface of a text, and by watching for those small moves of words sweating together, that there is something to learn and to talk about. But asking students to write, to begin to write for themselves is a different matter entirely. How does one model caring enough to find the time and place for one's own words when one doesn't do it?

I realized a while back that I was asking my students to do very tricky things with words: sestinas,short shorts, sonnets, telling them to just feel these forms out, as if these were cars to test-drive. And they would try them. Maybe they didn't realize the difficulty of these forms; perhaps it was just another assignment. These were ideas that I had read and analyzed and torn apart for ages, but knowing better, had not quite attempted whole-heartedly. I talked a good game; I gave students examples, and even places to start. But writing it? Knowing enough to know that what emerged would probably be terrible and twee? With this job comes a deep respect for the words, so much so that in being responsible, we may choose to lock them away in a cabinet, knowing (and a little scared of) their strength and power.

So in order to pay attention (and to avoid hypocrisy) I began doing my students' assignments along with them. I found that opposed to my students, who are well-trained and disposed to giving anything the college try, that I butt up against the assignment and am annoyed that for all my fluency, I create lame sonnets.

It takes so much time, the writing we find for ourselves, so much time that exceeds the work of a 54-minute period, or even the school day. It takes time to figure out what one needs to say, to locate the story that needs telling when one is used to reading final drafts of polished words and surfaces. I remember hearing Frank McCourt speak about finally putting the words that had for years circulated in his head to the page. After writing for a while, he began to get the quiet sense of the story that he wasn't writing, and that wanted to be told -- he had needed to sweat out twenty soulful pages to start to hear he think. (And he had had to leave teaching to get to that listening, ready place.)

McCourt finally alighted on the story that wanted to be told, that had been waiting for the words. I want to model that listening for the within and the without to my students, and also for myself. If I am not willing to wrestle with the words and their making, why should they? Ten years into this practice, I increasingly find myself listening: in the classroom, while I am grading, when I begin to write. I am hoping it can be that easy.