Thursday, July 07, 2011

My Love-Hate Relationship with Writing

(After a two-year case of writer's block -- I'm back. Enjoy!)

I have a confession to make … I hate writing. Well, maybe hate’s a strong word. Actually, I don’t hate writing. There’s nothing better than sitting at a computer when you’re inspired and words are coming from your brain quicker than your fingers can keep up. Unfortunately, there’s usually a process before all that free-flowing nirvana! And that’s what I hate!

Last month, I volunteered with the College Summit program as a writing coach. College Summit is a national nonprofit organization that partners with schools to strengthen college-going culture and increase college enrollment rates.

During a four-day workshop on a college campus, rising seniors get the opportunity to learn more about college life, themselves and then use that information to draft a personal statement that can be used on college applications. I got the opportunity to experience dorm life (you have to see it to believe it) and work with an amazing group of students (Team Keela).

My challenge was getting the students to buy into something that I’m not a fan of – the process. (But I have to admit it’s more fun when you’re facilitating and not actually doing it.) Here’s how it works. Without any background information, students are asked to write for 20 minutes. The only direction they’re given is to keep writing about whatever is on their minds. Then they’re asked to read what they wrote and their peers are asked to listen for “nuggets” that they would either like to know more about or have questions about. We do this twice and then hopefully one of those ideas becomes the start of a personal statement that “shows” but not “tells” us what the student stands for as a person.

I can’t tell you the number of times I asked them to trust the process and to continue to push through writer’s block and fatigue. As a writer, I fought against the urge to fix things for them and to suggest imagery that would make their stories stronger. At one point one of them asked what I wrote about in my personal essay for college. I thought about it and honestly couldn’t remember – but that was almost 25 year ago and I’ve done a lot of writing since then. Right?

In the end, Team Keela had four really strong personal statements (you’ll have to ask me about my 5th student, it’s too much to even write about here) and Facebook friends for life! The students are rewarded with a banquet and dance on Saturday. I had to pick excerpts from their statements to read. It gave me great pride to read their writing because they worked really hard. From the student who compared her failed first attempt at baking a red velvet cake to failing at life when you aren’t focused, to the volleyball star who wrote about the dig she missed and how she never gives up, to the 5’8”, 185 lb. all-region linebacker who plays BIG – Team Keela rocked! I’m not a competitive person by any means, but I wanted them to shine during their moments on the stage and they did because we trusted and worked through the process.

Coming back to work, I found my latest PRSA Tactics newsletter waiting for me and there was a piece about the writing process in it. Veteran communicator Ann Wylie talks about writing step-by-step to write better, easier and faster. Wylie says by using prewriting, freewriting and rewriting steps you’re less likely to suffer from writer’s block, more likely to meet deadlines and unlikely to get stressed out in the process. It’s nothing new to me, but a great reminder that I’ll try to do more of as I look for yet another angle to tell a very familiar story to keep my readers engaged.

There’s definitely a thin line between love and hate. This girl definitely loves writing and I will probably always hate the process! (But maybe a little less now.)

Team Keela minus its coach on banquet night!