Please welcome Bethany Reid as our guest today. Bethany earned an MFA and a PhD from the University of Washington. Her poetry, essays, and book reviews have appeared in regional and national journals, including Blackbird, Santa Clara Review, Prairie Schooner, Pontoon, Calyx, Studies in the Novel, The New England Quarterly, and Twins. Her chapbook, The Coyotes and My Mom, was published in a limited edition in 1990 by Bellowing Ark Press, and Sparrow won the 2012 Gell Poetry Prize, selected by Dorianne Laux, and was published by Big Pencil Press. Bethany lives in Edmonds, Washington, with her husband and three daughters.
For most of my teaching career, I taught community college students—all ages and many backgrounds, including women returning to the workforce after rearing children, formerly homeless youth, and military veterans. My students often felt as though other people could write, but not them. But you don’t have to have scads of time, special equipment, not even a room of your own in order to write. You have a story, and you get to tell it.
Writing as a Small Sturdy Boat
What does writing feel like to you?
This was one of the first questions I asked my freshman composition students, back when I was teaching two or three sections of English 101 each academic quarter. I didn’t just ask, they had to write a response in-class. I didn’t allow abstractions, no words like “frustrated” or “happy.” I wanted a picture. If they wished, they could actually draw a picture instead of writing a description. To clarify further, I didn’t want to see anyone sitting at a desk in front of a notebook or keyboard. Not propped in bed. Not at Starbucks. I wanted an image, a metaphor that represented the feeling that writing gave them.
The negative images my student writers produced astounded me.
- Like that dream where I’m giving a speech and I don’t have any pants on.
- Like a pothole.
- Like a cow tangled in a barbed wire fence.
- Like being devoured by fire ants.
One student wrote, memorably, “Writing is like digging out my eye with a rusty spoon.”
After they wrote, we sat in a circle and shared our images aloud. This was useful in and of itself. The students felt listened to, and they realized that they weren’t alone. With luck, they heard at least a few more positive possibilities for how writing might make them feel. Toward the end of our discussion, I liked to share Alice Walker’s metaphor, writing as “a very sturdy ladder out of the pit.” I might read a poem, maybe Richard Wilbur’s “The Writer,” and we would talk about heavy chains and iridescent, flying creatures.
I also shared my own metaphor for writing—a small boat.