When I introduce myself to a group of students I’ll be teaching for a school year or a work week, I ask them if they ever feel nervous when they’re given an assignment. If, when they turn their notebooks to a bright-white, blank page, they feel like they don’t know where to start. Or if they worry that they’re going to make a mistake. If someone–a teacher, a parent, a peer–will read it and think it’s not very good. Gradually, some begin to nod, but subtly–nobody wants to admit they suffer from this fear.
“Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt this way,” I tell them, because they need to know they’re not suffering alone. I always put my hand up first, and highest.
I am always afraid when I confront a blank page. Always. Every single novel, screenplay, article, blog post, letter to a friend, email to a colleague begins with an attempt to vanquish that fear. That it won’t make any sense. That it won’t be any good. That nobody will want to read it. That the people who do read it will hate it and critique me harshly. That all the time I spend working on it will have been a waste.
Most of the hands in the room go up. The few that don’t are either already traumatized or prematurely delusional. I don’t know a single serious writer who doesn’t panic at the sight of all that empty space. But these are children, usually, and so I feel it’s my job to try to cure them of this trepidation before it’s too late.
“Your ideas are safe here,” I tell them. “They can be private. This is different from regular school. There aren’t any grades, there are no dire consequences. And that instrument you’re holding in your hand is practically magic. One end writes, the other erases. If you don’t like what you’ve written, you can change it or start over. And the time you spent wasn’t wasted because it helped you get to the idea you really want to explore, the sentences you really meant to write.”
Of course they know this. But it helps to be reminded. I like to be reminded sometimes too. So I made up a mantra for my first group of students years ago, and I teach it to every new class. (And I try to remember to say it to myself when I need to hear it, which is often.)
“Let’s say it together on the count of three: ‘I am a fearless writer.'”
“Great. Now say it like you really mean it.”
And they do. And it does seem to help. We never undertake a writing assignment without repeating this phrase. If I ever forget, some mindful student will prompt me. Ms. Chris, we need to say our mantra.
Today I gave this little speech to my students at the Dostyk American International School, and told them I hope it will be something they’ll take with them to every writing effort, whether assigned or voluntary, from now until the end of their lives. I hope they do, but I suspect that they–like most of us–will need to be reminded now and again.
Here are my sweet third and fourth graders, saying it loud–in Kazakh. Judging from their writing today, it worked: