Teachers Write 7.18.15 How Writing is Like Swimming: Saturday thoughts from Kristen Kittscher

Officially, we are in our Teachers Write weekend, but this year, we decided to share some not-quite-lessons on these days. It’s always worth taking a little time to reflect, so today, guest author Kristen Kittscher joins us for just that.

Kristen is a former 7th grade English teacher and the author of the middle grade mystery The Wig in the Window and its forthcoming sequel, The Tiara on the Terrace (Harper Children’s, January 5, 2016). The 2014 James Thurber House Children’s Writer-in-Residence, Kristen loves teaching writing workshops for kids of all ages and visiting schools. Today, Kristen shares a bit about her own journey as a teacher-writer…

For many years, I was an English teacher who didn’t write. At least, that’s how I saw it. In truth, I was writing all the time: with my seventh grade students, in my journal, to fun writing prompts, in rambling emails that I sent to entertain family and friends. I dismissed all of it. Though I yearned to tell my own stories, in my mind “real” writing was done by geniuses endowed with magical talents I didn’t possess. And finishing a novel? That was for rock star authors, not mere mortals.

How did I stand there all that time, urging my students to silence their inner critics and make glorious messes in their drafts, yet never show myself even an iota of the same compassion? It still amazes me. Worse yet, I beat myself up for not walking the walk. Or the talk, I suppose I should say. Because, boy, I did a lot of talking.

Does any of this sound familiar? I hope not. I hope you’re looking at me like I’m a curious alien creature. That—unlike me—you’ve been gentle with that dreamy, writing self and let her meander along river banks and roll in grass and stare up at trees and waste reams of paper on words no one ever sees. That you’ve never told her to hurry up because you had more pressing matters to attend to—then left her behind when she didn’t obey. Or worse: berated her until she ran away and hid altogether.

Though it’s too long of a story to tell here, eventually I learned to stop abusing the writer in me. I finally let go and played, and one day even finished my first long writing project, the manuscript that would become my debut, The Wig in the Window. (No surprise it turned out to be about two seventh graders uncovering a hypocritical teacher’s dark secret, is it?).

If you’ve made it here to Teachers Write, you’re already miles beyond where I started—and chances are, you’re much kinder to your creative self, too. Hopefully you already realize that you are a “real” writer, if you write at all—that you can and will finish the projects you hope to share, or develop a regular writing practice that brings you joy, if that’s your goal.

But if as you absorb all the fantastic craft lessons Kate has gathered here, you find yourself feeling fearful or frustrated—if you’re tempted to give up and take care one of the thousand seemingly more urgent tasks on your to-do list—I hope you’ll stop for a moment and double-check that you’ve filled yourself with the key ingredients first: compassion for—and trust in—yourself.

In his brilliant book on creating, Writing the Australian Crawl, the poet William Stafford likened writing to swimming. Water slips right through our fingers. How can it possibly hold a person up? And yet if swimmers relax into the water—if they make “little strokes with the material nearest them,” they not only stay afloat, they propel themselves forward.

It’s summer. A perfect time for a swim, don’t you think? Dive in that lake! Move your hands through the cool, fresh ideas nearest you. The water will hold you. I promise. It doesn’t matter if your strokes aren’t graceful. You’ll glide ahead, little by little. And pretty soon you’ll find that you—a mere mortal!—will have traveled farther than you ever could have imagined.

Take your time, and let’s meet up on the opposite shore, okay? I’ll be the one out of breath but still cheering.

26 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.18.15 How Writing is Like Swimming: Saturday thoughts from Kristen Kittscher

  1. I think we are often afraid to jump into the water because of what we’ve been told or assumed about our writing. My junior year in high school I took a creative writing class. I was very shy. My teacher destroyed my writing for a long time. She handed back an assignment and told me it was a good thing I wanted to be an Elementary teacher because I’d never make it as a writer. She never told me what I did right or wrong on that or any of my papers. I pulled a “B” in that class thinking I couldn’t write. I’d been writing puppetry scripts for my church for quite some time, but didn’t think that was writing. I went to an English Conference and took a writing class with Laurie Halse Anderson and for the first time began to believe in myself. I went back to school and started giving my reading class writing assignments. They would sit there and look at me like I had 2 heads and do nothing. Finally one of them said, “We don’t know how to do this.” I realized I had to put myself out there and model. That was so scary, modeling a simple story for kids I did it. For ever writing lesson I did I modeled it first. It was because of that modeling that one of my students told me I needed to write books for my shelves because they would read them. That one student made me believe in my own writing ability. Sometimes we need someone to push us into the water to know that we can float.

    1. I’m so happy that you could silence those old criticisms and move forward. As I read your comment, I thought of a chapter in Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD in which she talks about imagining her critics’ voices as mice (or rats?) that she puts into a jar before sealing the lid. You did a good job sealing away the damaging words of that teacher — and are now spreading your own positivity to your students. A student helped me gain my confidence, too, by the way!

      1. As teachers we rightfully have been focusing on using these exercises to model and encourage our young writers in our classes. But I think another good thing to take away is how damaging those words spoken by the Creative Writing teacher were to Sandra. She was eventually about to overcome it but there could potentially be others who were not so fortunate. I think it is a cautionary tale for teachers to choose their words carefully when conferencing with students.

      2. Thank you so much, Kristen. I think BIRD by BIRD helped me with this. And I am so grateful you found a way to dive in- can’t wait for TIARA! THanks for sharing this important lesson with us- now off to do some morning journaling and then, maybe, give myself permission to do an actual TW exercise or two…

  2. I think your alien planet is overpopulated, yet not lacking in resources. Thank you for the encouragement, especially to go a bit further, a bit beyond what we are currently doing. Time for a swim.

  3. Your comments hit close to home. As a long time middle school teacher, I model writing to guide my students and have played with personal writing for a while. This camp has been just the right push for experimenting with my own writing voice, stretching me and encouraging me. It’s helpful to see other teachers at a similar place sharing writing and questions together. Thanks Kate and author mentors for your time.

  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Kristen. I think you’re so right about taking time to have fun and be dreamy and use up lots of disk space or paper that no one will ever see! Thanks for the inspiration!

  5. Great reflection Kristen. I’m so happy that this opportunity to join this group came up and that I found it. I have discovered that I love to write. I can’t wait to share with my class.

  6. Kristen, I now believe in clairvoyance. This morning my writers self was unkindly being dismissed. You words encouraged me to keep afloat and see what the next wave brings. Thank you.

  7. Thank you, Kristen, for sharing your story. For years I’ve been going to SCBWI with my husband. When asked if I was a writer, I said, “Oh, no. Not me. That’s my husband.” Never mind that I was working on a dissertation and doing lots of writing for use in my elementary writers’ workshop. It’s all “real” writing.

  8. Thank you for this post of inspiration! There are so many gems, take away nuggets in this post you have shared with us. I feel so fortunate to be a part of TWC for myself, my students, and the teachers I work with as a reading specialist in a 7/8th school dedicated to a blooming, thriving literacy community. I’m swimming to you!

  9. Thank you for reminding us to be kind to our writer-selves. I am constantly trying to urge on my colleagues, encouraging them to share their voice, and celebrate their stories. But I hear the inner critic consistently, and while I can see the best in the writings of my peers, sometimes it is difficult to have the same outlook on my own writing. This is a great reminder!

    1. I agree, Greg! I have often though that is much easier to follow in the “teacher/mentor” role and help/encourage others with writing, instead of focusing on my own musings. This virtual writing workshop is helping me to value my own writing as well. Thanks to all!

  10. Thank you. Tough day today. The demands of the world weighing down on me. Wondering why I am wasting time in my room writing, when I could be out swimming. Today, I will step away from the type of writing that I think I SHOULD be doing and let myself go to a place that is playful. Thank you for the reminder. I think it’s time for a swim.

  11. Whew. Swimming is an apt comparison. Both terrify me. I take that back. The idea of failing at either one is what is terrifying. But I am dog-paddling my way toward publication and trying not to drown in my fear.

    Thank you for sharing this post with us. I needed to hear it.

  12. Kristen – As someone who has always loved writing, and secretly wished to write publicly, I really appreciate you sharing with us. It does take so much work to get over the fear. For me, it is coming incrementally. First Twitter, then liking a blog post, then commenting on one, then creating a blog, and now joining TW. It’s been an amazing experience of toes dips. Hearing your story makes me think I may, one day, be able to reach the other side of the pool. So thank you for your time and energy to share your journey with us.

  13. Kristen, it’s posts like these that give me the push and drive to keep on going and to stop doubting my abilities as a writer. I was always the writer in my family. I was told by teachers and professors to keep at it, that I could do it, and I felt writing was somewhat of a calling of mine. Then life got busy: marriage, teaching, houses, pets, kids. So many wonderful moments which gave me more inspiration to write, but no time to do it. And then there’s the self doubt that sets in as you mentioned above. It was not until recently that I’ve been able to hush that doubtful voice within and get started on writing again. I love your post, and I love that you said you, “finally let go and played” because I feel that is what i’m doing. I’m having fun with my writing, i’m entertaining myself with it, for now. I’m not taking myself too seriously or being too critical. This is exactly where I want to be and need to be. So thank you for your reassuring words! Now i’m off to bed; this mama of two crazy little boys has had a long day and is starting to ramble. Thanks Kristen!

  14. Hooray! It’s inspiring ME to hear all of you feeling inspired, and I’m glad my own wrestling with the demons of self-doubt could send you all charging (diving?) ahead.

  15. Thank you, Ms. Kittscher, for an inspirational post. You connected three things that I love – writing, teaching, and swimming. Four mornings a week, I hop into the pool and swim laps. Some days, I am thinking about all of the things that need to get done during the day, but most days, I am just plain thinking (and often losing count of the laps:). Sometimes, I do think, will my words ever be published? But most of the time, I am just writing (and thinking about ideas to write about) for the love of writing. I am a better writing teacher when I am writing. Thank you again. Happy writing!