Writing, like anything else, is a skill: a muscle we must exercise regularly or watch soften and fade. Pliny the Elder’s advice, nulla dies sine linea–not a day without a line–hangs on the walls of many a writer’s office for good reason: daily writing is a must.
But where many writers dismay is in what they write each day. They punish themselves when their writing feels flat, lackluster, uninspired. Writer’s block creeps in. They begin to fear the empty page, to shy away from it. They stop writing, drop the pen, lose their voice.
I’m talking about a specific writer, here: me.
I recently began running again after nearly three years off. I used to love running: the empty mindlessness of it, the feeling of accomplishment the finish line brought. I ran until the third trimester of my first pregnancy, when I looked more like a bouncing beach ball than a runner.
Now, two babies, three years, many pounds, and one shoe size later, I’ve finally begun to run again. It was hard at first–I could barely run a mile without stopping. I didn’t feel the famed “runners’ high” I used to: I just felt sad. Sad that I couldn’t do what I used to be able to; sad that I’d let my running identity dissolve; sad that my days of half marathons were seemingly over.
But I bought a jogging stroller and kept at it, and forced myself to run to justify the expense. I went to the gym daily and ran circles around the track or outside on hills. I ran up and down stairs at my house; I ran after my youngest, who recently began crawling; I parked far away from stores and ran to them. Memorably, I once forgot my Starbucks on the baby shelf at Target, and ran to retrieve it.
It wasn’t always enjoyable, especially at first, but I built the skill back up, little by little. I kept at it, running on trails or in neighborhoods so I couldn’t just give up and stop. I, someone who is terrible at self-discipline, made myself a runner again.
Recently, I read Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code, where I learned the difference between hard and soft skills. Hard skills, like running, are quantifiable: can you run three miles? Yes, I can. Can you write in English? Yes, I can.
But soft skills are more nebulous, less quantifiable. They’re less about whether you can do something and more about how well you do it. Can I run three miles in 20 minutes? HA. Can I write a book? HA, HA.
But the key to developing soft skills, as Coyle writes, is in the practice. High reps, new variations, and clear feedback. I ran daily, even when it was terrible. But it only took a few weeks to regain my ability to run multiple miles at a time.
As I ran, I often thought about other things that once felt easy but were now hard, like my seemingly voiceless writing identity. My writing just didn’t sing anymore; it felt blah. It wasn’t fun to do. I felt I’d lost my voice.
But after reading Coyle’s book, it was clear from the gaps in my notebook that what my voice was lacking was a result of lack of practice. If I wanted to find my voice again, I would need to approach writing anew.
I wrote daily, which, like running, was painful at first. But the more I wrote, the faster my words flowed, the faster my thoughts and ideas developed. The more ideas I had, the more I craved good writing in the books I read, podcasts I listened to, music I ran to. I wanted to be surrounded by strong, elegant thinking, to help push myself to communicate strong, elegant thinking in my writing. I renewed my passion for reading good literature, regained pleasure in opening my notebook, and found my writer’s voice, and writing identity, again.
For our students, this daily, varied writing is essential. They need practice to build their voices, to sharpen their thoughts, to hone their craft. For many, their writing voices are a muscle not yet developed: they will build them in their notebooks in our classrooms.
Our students need to be saturated with good writing, strong ideas, thoughtful words. If most of their day is filled with Snapchat and Facebook and all the hideous writing social networks often entail, our students must see beauty in the books and poems and articles we share with them.
Coyle writes in The Talent Code that mentoring ourselves to experts is a key to developing our own proficiency at skills. We cannot just show our students good writing; we must bring writers to life for them; show them how a writer lives and works to illustrate the possibilities of a writing identity. We must allow them to think, “if they can do it, why can’t I?”
We must offer our students this opportunity: to be writers, with the habit of daily writing, the inspiration of strong writers, the ideas that come from reading great texts. Our routines might look like:
- Quickwrites to begin the day as writers
- Mentor texts to study within a larger context–as part of a genre, author, or thematic unit
- Instant, frequent revision that goes beyond copyediting and into the addition of ideas and clarity
- Transparency of writing process in the form of sharing one another’s drafts
- Varied, voluminous reading independently and collaboratively
- Quiet moments to reflect, self-assess, and set goals about our writing and writers’ identities
A writer’s voice can be so easily lost, but so readily found again with practice, purpose, and passion. We can all be writers.
Helping our students find their voices is an amazing, rewarding part of our work as teachers of readers and writers. Keep constant the routines of daily reading and writing, and keep sacred the mantra of nulla dies sine linea–never a day without a line.
Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia with her two daughters and husband. She reads and writes daily at a large desk that overlooks a small view of the mountains. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.