My life’s calendar has been that of schools since I was five years old. Even in retirement it hasn’t changed much. As a former teacher, this is still an important time of the year for me. I have former students graduating—from college or grad school—or the children (and grandchildren!) of former students achieving their own milestones of commencement.
Teaching writing was integral to my curriculum even when I was teaching teachers and not students of English. I believe written communication to be essential to our discourse, and all too often it is not done very well, especially now that it has become more acceptable to write in abbreviations or hieroglyphics and convey entire ideas in 144 words or fewer.
I was asked many decades ago to give the graduation address to a group of high school seniors for whom I had been their only English teacher their entire four years. It was an honor, naturally, and I wanted to try to provide them with some “words of wisdom” that they might not forget before they received their diplomas.
That captive audience got another lesson in composition. I used the jargon with which they were quite familiar from class to try and give them some last few bits of advice before they set out on their new adventures. I never write down speeches, however. Typically I just use a few notes to keep my thoughts focused and organized. No one was using video equipment way back when, either, so my pearls of wisdom are either imprinted in their minds or vague phantoms reminding them more of long hours of writing than graduating.
Despite the lack of evidence, my main points are quite easily recreated. Whether you’re about to cross the stage and receive a diploma or simply embarking on another stage of your life, I offer you these thoughts.
Live your life as if you were composing the story of your life—you are doing just that, of course. Writing, like living, is a process. I’ve never agreed with the idea that “The Writing Process” is a linear thing, but the elements are clear: Developing an Idea/Theme/Purpose, Pre-writing, Organizing, Writing, Proofreading & Editing, and Publishing.
It’s always easier to write something when you have a clear idea about what you’re trying to communicate. Have a purpose, a goal. In my own life—and your goals are apt to be much like mine—I can categorize my goals: the Idea of my life. The big one is just to live a good life (always an interesting task to define that!) and try to make a difference in the world. If a student had brought that to me as the theme for an essay or short story, I would have spent a good deal of time helping him/her to narrow it down or break it down into smaller steps, milestones along the way to that Main Idea. What needs to be done to get to your ultimate goal? Do you need new skills, new knowledge, help from others? Where will you get it? Do your research!
Those life conversations with high school seniors included trying to help them decide which college or trade school to attend or sometimes just how to earn that high school diploma. Few graduates really know “what they want to be when they grow up.” Choosing a college major or deciding on a career at that point can be scary. Usually my advice was, “Go exploring!” Sometimes you just have to do some looking around in order to know which direction to take.
In writing, this kind of exploration and idea generation is part of pre-writing. Sit down with your doubts and indecisions and just write for a few minutes as the thoughts come to you. Most of the time they will begin to take a direction if you’re really looking for one. It can help you get a handle on what you don’t know, as well. Where do you need to do some more research? What questions do you have about your idea? Who can help you? Where can you look? What do you already know?
When the next step is understood, that point in your writing/creating the story of your life when you know where you’re going, take the time to do some organizing. Make a plan. Have you ever made an outline for your life? Again, it doesn’t have to be all-inclusive and end with your eulogy. What’s your next goal in your life story? Organize it and write it a chapter at a time! Sometimes you don’t even know what the next chapter is going to be until you have written the previous one. You’ll learn new things, meet new people, acquire new skills, achieve new highs, and survive new lows. If you have a clear destination, it’s easier to plan the best route to get there.
The fun part is the writing/living! When you’ve done the prep work and organized/planned how to reach the next goal along the way, start writing. A few years ago, Nike branded the world with its “Just Do It!” slogan. When I retired, I rewrote that for myself. My slogan is, “Do It NOW!” Write your story as it is now. Live the life you have now. Make the choice(s) to be the best you can be at this moment and take advantage of whatever skill set you’ve gained or new insights you’re finding, and take advantage of the people around you now! Learn from them. Help them and let them help you. Your stories are intertwined a little or a lot. You may even decide that you should be braided together and continue writing your separate stories together for a while. It can be an advantage if you see it that way.
Have you come to the end of another episode? Are you “graduating” again…commencing? Well, then it’s time to start the process over. Back to thinking about your Goal, your Main Idea, your Purpose. Is it closer (or maybe even farther away!)? Has it changed? What’s next? Time to prewrite again. More thinking and planning and researching…. Then re-organize and start writing again. Over and over and over.
The proofreading and editing parts are always there. It’s an ongoing process. You should always take the time to look over what you’ve written and make the necessary edits to keep things clear. One of the mistakes that many writers make, I think, is doing it all themselves. I don’t know how many times I’ve written something and read and reread it again and again only to have the first person to read it point out an error of some kind. It’s nice to have friends and people you admire and whose advice you value. Get their input. Ask for advice. We are all writing our singular life stories. If you’re as sharp as I think you are, you’re aware that all those separate stories are really just one. We just have different versions. It’s sort of like having the same story as a novel, a poem, a short story collection, a movie, a play…. You get the idea. So if we’re all in this together, why not help one another?
The final stage in that linear writing process is publication. The writer is finished with the work; it has been to the editor; it’s in print. Now the public gets a look at it. Your life story isn’t like that, of course. Every rough draft is out there for the world to see. Even when it isn’t your best work and you know it, some will criticize your style or argue that you’re writing in the wrong genre or maybe even that you shouldn’t be writing at all! Now and then you’ll find someone who thinks every word is amazing; you’re the next Shakespeare! Every day of your life story is precious. It has the potential to be life-altering not only for you but for everyone around you and, maybe, even some who are unknown to you…or maybe not even born yet! Just do your best and put it out there. Keep revising. Keep polishing.
One day you’ll write the last word to your story. The final draft will be published. Maybe it will be the end of an immense tome, thousands of pages of wisdom and insight and joy and laughter and success after success despite the setbacks. Then again, it might be a short story. Remember that some of the world’s best-known writers are revered for just a few things they managed to create in a very short time before their careers ended.
I hope you’re famous whatever your story. Write on!