Writers: Our Forever-Friends

“Day by day and night by night we were together—all else has long been forgotten by me…”

Walt Whitman, “Once I Pass’d through a Popular City” (Leaves of Grass, 1855)

Whenever I teach a literature course, I tell my students that aside from celebrating their achievements as they master the course content, I have one special hope for each of them. I want them to find one writer who will be their friend. One writer who will never unfriend them as other friends sometimes do. One writer who will be with them through all the storms of life, for a lifetime. A writer who will be a forever-friend.

What I have in mind is similar to the handful of real-life, forever-friends whom we might have, if we are lucky. It’s never many. At least it has never been many for me. I have perhaps one handful of such friends. All right. Perhaps two handfuls who are in the friends-forever category. With us, we’ve shared so many past experiences that even if we have not seen one another in years, when we reconnect, we pick up magically on the same conversation that we were having when we last met, and we do so without missing a beat. Friends. Forever-friends.

Writers can be our forever-friends, too, with an added bonus. We can have lots and lots of them. As we read more and more, we discover more and more writers who might end up as our friends. We like them. We like what they have to say to us. We like how they inspire us. We like how they make us believe. We like how they make us feel…unalone. We like how they heal our…brokenness. Before long, we want to hang out with them. We can. Whenever we want. For as long as we want.

The great thing about writers who are our forever-friends is that when they pop up unannounced and uninvited, it’s never a problem. We don’t have to clean for them. We don’t have to cook for them. And we don’t have to clear our calendars for them. They can tag along with us just as we are. And they will do just that if we let them.

All that we have to do is be attentive, smile when they arrive, and even smile when they leave, knowing that they will come back to visit us again and again and again.

Their arrival coincides with something that we are experiencing that makes us think of something else. It’s the power of association. Robert Frost captures it best:

“All thought is a feat of association; having what’s in front of you bring up something in your mind that you almost didn’t know you knew.”

That’s the beauty of having writers who are forever-friends. Their arrival is based exclusively on what’s right in front of you or something that you’re thinking about. Something that you almost didn’t know you knew.

No doubt, you have your own writers who are your forever-friends, just as I do.

Obviously, I don’t know about yours, but mine visit me multiple times throughout the day, every day without fail. I never know which writers will visit or when. But I go forth daily, confident of being strengthened and girded up by their company.

For example, Walt Whitman shook his silvery locks right in front of me as I was writing this post. I was thinking about the fact that only a snippet of a writer’s work comes to my mind during an association, while all the other details of the work are seemingly long forgotten. Instantly, the lines from Whitman’s “Once I Pass’d through a Popular City” flashed across my mind:

“Day by day and night by night we were together—all else has long been forgotten by me…”

Here’s another example.

When I met with my Creative Writing class for the first time this semester, I had a slap-stick time promoting this blog. It was nothing more than nonsensical banter aimed at entertaining my students, but they picked up on it.

Not long after I managed to restore myself to a modicum of seriousness, one student raised her hand as if to ask a serious question.

“Professor Kendrick, did you say that you have a blog?”

I started laughing, as did the rest of the class.

A little later on, her hand went up again. I was on to her by then, but I was having far too much fun, so I acknowledged her.

“Professor Kendrick, did you give us the name of your blog?”

(When our laughter died down, my forever-friend Edward Albee paid me a momentary visit. He has chummed me since the 1960s when I was in college and he was a controversial Broadway playwright.)

“Very funny! You know, Caitlin, my hell-bent banter to promote my blog to a brand-new group of students, reminds me of the first line from Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story.”

In the play, Jerry approaches Peter, a total stranger, sitting on a bench in Central Park.

I’ve been to the zoo. [PETER doesn’t notice.] I said, I’ve been to the zoo. MISTER, I’VE BEEN TO THE ZOO! 

I was thrilled by Albee’s visit, especially since I was able to share it with my class. He came as he did and when he did because of my dogged determination to tell my students–a group of strangers, if you will–all about my blog. In the process, I remembered Jerry’s insistence on telling Peter, a total stranger, that he had been to the zoo.

My students got it. They saw the association with great clarity.

On another occasion, something similar happened at the start of the same class.

As I drove on campus. I was aware–painfully so–that the grassy, undeveloped acreage all around the college was being gobbled up by townhouses.

At the start of class, one of my students shared the same observation.

In that nanosecond, former United States Poet Laureate Phillip Levine appeared. Immediately, I walked to my teacher station, googled his poem “A Story” and flashed it on the screen for students to see as I read it aloud.

It captures perfectly what my students and I had witnessed with pain that morning.

Levine chronicles the life and death of the woods that once surrounded us and ends with a chilling doomsday prophecy:

where are the woods? They had to have been

because the continent was clothed in trees.

We all read that in school and knew it to be true.

Yet all we see are houses, rows and rows

of houses as far as sight, and where sight vanishes

into nothing, into the new world no one has seen,

there has to be more than dust, wind-borne particles

of burning earth, the earth we lost, and nothing else.

And right now as I typed the above quotation, Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell popped into my head, chanting a few lines from her “Big Yellow Taxi”:

Don’t it always seem to go

That you don’t know what you’ve got

Till it’s gone

They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot.

My writers–my forever-friends–visit me far more in my alone times than they do when I am teaching or, for that matter, when I am socializing.

Maybe they appear then because they know that in my alone times friends can add a richness to any moment, even ordinary ones.

Ordinary moments like weed whacking. Somehow, I end up doing that chore on Sunday instead of going to church. That’s no big deal to me. I consider myself Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR). Emily Dickinson must be SBNR, too, because she is always with me on my Sunday morns. Her “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church” overpowers the Stihl noise through all the stanzas, rising triumphantly in the final one:

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –

And the sermon is never long,

So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –

I’m going, all along.

Or sometimes it’s as simple as visitorial moments that occur when reading emails from regular friends who aren’t writers. Recently, a friend who is my age wrote that his hands had grown old. I sensed his sadness and immediately thought of a poem about aging by former United States Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz: “Touch Me.” It includes the poignant lines:

What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.

One season only,
and it’s done.

[…]

Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.

And then I immediately thought of Ben Speer singing “Time Has Made a Change in Me.” The title alone was touchstone sufficient. And that led me to W. S. Merwin reading his “Yesterday” with the ever-chilling line:

oh I say
feeling again the cold
of my father’s hand the last time

It’s amazing: the rich literary company that embraced me, all because of one single solitary email sent my way!

Sometimes, though, my forever-friends arrive as I try to make sense of all that’s going on in our world. The ongoing COVID pandemic. The invasion of Ukraine. Recent SCOTUS decisions. The January 6 Hearings. Global Warming. Poverty. Food scarcity. Gender inequality. Homophobia. Transphobia. Growing humanitarian conflicts and crises. The 21st anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on America.

Need I go on? Sadly, I could. Gladly, I won’t. It’s far too sobering.

But in those dark moments when I find myself spiritually staggering under the weight of it all, I take strength from William Faulkner’s Nobel Acceptance Speech, delivered in 1950 when the world was staggering under the burden of the Cold War:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? […] I decline to accept the end of man.  […] I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.

Maybe, just maybe, the need to have writers who are our forever-friends, boils down to nothing more than this. They come regardless of what we are facing. They reassure us that goodness and mercy shall prevail. They remind us to grapple with our soul, to grapple with our spirit.

They come, as Robert Browning came to me just this second, to calm us and anchor us in the full and steadfast belief that despite all the injustices, all the wrongdoings, all the travail, and all the sorrows,

God’s in His Heaven,

All’s right with the world.

Pippa Passes, Song I (1841)

Gr!t ’R Done!

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”

Confucius, The Analects

Needless to say, I need not even ask what I am about to ask. But I will ask it anyway.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed?

“Who? Me?” I just heard someone ask.

Yes. You. Maybe. But let’s edge our way in to this just a little more before you decide, lest you decide too hastily.

I’m not talking about the way you feel when that last straw is headed right toward you, and you know fully well that it’s the one that will break your proverbial camel’s back.

If that’s the mell of a hess you’re grappling with, I’m really sorry for your streak of bad luck.

The overwhelmed that I have in mind is when you have a mountain smackdab in front of you. It’s ginormous. And you have to move it, and you have no idea how you will ever get it done.

Maybe, in reality, it’s nothing more than a mole hill. But perceptions are perceptions. If that mole hill is a mountain to you, then it is indeed your mountain.

Aren’t we masterful at turning our mole hills into mountains?

I am. You are. We all are.

And, at the same time, let’s acknowledge that all of us face real life mountains, too, that we have to move.

It’s when we’re facing our mountains–the real ones and the mole hills that we have turned into mountains–that we feel overwhelmed. That’s when we sigh or cry or moan or groan because at that moment we just don’t see how we will ever move that mole hill. We just don’t see how we will ever move that mountain. We just don’t see how we will ever get it done.

To feel overwhelmed before the mountains of life–real or overblown–is to be human.

This week, I’m feeling superhuman. Overwhelmed is on my mind a lot: it’s the next to the last week before my summer classes end. Also, overwhelmed is on my students’ minds a lot this week: they have reading assignments and a final discussion board forum this week and a final reflection essay next week.

(A word to educators who would be wise: abandon those ridiculous final exams. Replace them with meaningful final reflection essays. Reach out to me using Contact, and I will share proven strategies that have worked for me during the last four years.)

My apologies for that digressory jab at defunct final exam practices that continue to plague the hallowed ivory halls of learning. I couldn’t help myself.

Where was I?

Oh, yes. My students are feeling overwhelmed by end-of-semester assignments and by final reflection essays.

Guess what?

I am, too. It’s a mountain of work right in front of me, so close that I can smell the virtual submissions, so close that I can hardly breathe. And I have to get it done.

Let me define the preceding “it.” I have to grade all of that student work that’s closing in on me and smothering me, because I have to submit final grades two days after those final reflection essays are submitted. My mountain seems even larger.

Oh. Yes. I understand how it feels to feel overwhelmed.

I know, too, that my students always feel overwhelmed at the beginning of the semester. They have so much to do before the end.

I do, too. I’m their learning coach. I’m their learning cheerleader. I’m there to help them move those mole hills. I’m there to help them move those mountains. I’m there to help them get it done.

I always suggest some strategies that they can use to see themselves through to the successful conclusion that they hope to enjoy and that they can enjoy if they work at it.

Ironically, the strategies are always the same whether it’s the beginning, or, as it is now, the end.

Ironically, the same strategies work for me, at my beginnings and my endings.

Ironically, the strategies will work for you, at your beginnings and your endings.

Following these strategies can help all of us–me, my students, and you–feel less overwhelmed as we tackle our mole hills and our mountains.

A good place to start is by realistically measuring our grit. Please tell me that you know about grit. You do, right? Sometimes I have to explain it to my students, so let me explain it here for everyone’s benefit.

And yes: after the explanation, you will have a quiz! Don’t worry. (1) It’s optional. (2) Anyone who takes the quiz will pass.

Grit has nothing to do with IQ. It has nothing to do with talent. It has nothing to do with luck. It has everything to do with your willingness to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work always required to achieve any goal, usually a long-term goal, but it applies as well to short term goals. Grit is all about perseverance and passion.

I have always known about grit, but Angela Duckworth is the one who turned me on to the power and awesomeness of grit. She has turned lots of folks on to it, too, and when you get turned on to grit, get ready to get it done, whatever you need to get done.

I start my semesters by having my students take Duckworth’s 10-question Grit Quiz. Why don’t you take it, right now? Hot Tip: Be honest. No need to fool yourself! Not now. Not ever.

After my students find out how gritty they are, I invite them to share their grit score with the class if they wish. I am always amazed by the fruitful and honest conversations that follow. I just heard someone whisper, “What’s your grit score?” Thank you, but no need to whisper. I’m proud of it. I scored a 5. Did you hear me? Let me shout it again. I’m a 5. I’m as gritty as they grit. My grit is awesome. When I start it–whatever the “it” is–I’m going to stick with it until I get it done. Count on it.

After our class discussion of grittiness goes wherever it goes–and wherever it goes is always exactly where it ought to go: learning is always spontaneous, and spontaneity is always all right with me–I get my students hooked on Duckworth’s TED Talk: “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” It’s powerful. It’s motivational. It makes you want to get down and get gritty. Go ahead. Watch it. It’s had 26,997,225 views. With any luck, this post might take it up to 27 million views! So come on! Let’s gr!t ‘r done.

As my students and I get deeper and deeper into the semester, I am always mindful that the journey that I am trying to make a fun and fulfilling one for them might start looking more and more like a mountain. Then I love to share with them little proverbs as little reminders that a little strength applied consistently and for a sustained period of time can bring staggering results. Maybe it’s as simple as “The man who would move mountains must begin by carrying away small stones” (Confucius, The Analects). Or maybe “Little Strokes Fell Great Oaks” (Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac).

Then as research papers start to loom on the horizon, I up the ante still more and share with my classes the backstory for Anne Lamott’s classic book on writing and living, Bird by Bird. In the introduction to her book, she tells the story of her brother who had waited until the last minute to write his paper that was due the next day. Interestingly enough, the paper was about birds. Lamott’s father told him to write the paper bird by bird. Looking at the component parts and completing one part of the paper at a time made the whole project seem less intimidating and less overwhelming.

What Lamott and Franklin and Confucius and a gazillion others are offering up as a pearl of wisdom is a lesson in incrementalism: progress comes gradually, in small steps.

It works for my students. It works for me. It will work for you.

As the semester progresses and end-of-semester fatigue raises its nasty and unnerving head, I can see in my students’ faces the reflection of their mountains right in front of them. Then I know that I have to up the ante once again. I play for the class one of my favorite poems by Rita Dove–“Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967. It’s an incredible tribute to learning and to libraries and to librarians and to getting it done. It has an even more special meaning for me because Rita Dove read that poem at the White House on May 11, 2011. Former President Obama–who believes that poetry and the arts matter (and they do)–provides a masterful introduction to the power of poetry, with wry, charming humor as only he can do. Afterwards the poet reads her poem. Both the former president and the former United States Poet Laureate are genuine charmers. I’ll provide the link in just a second. Watch the video, please. (But not until you finish my post, or, if you insist on watching the video before finishing my post, go ahead. Just come back. I’ll be lost without you.) Rita Dove: 2011 White House Poetry Evening — introduction by Barack Obama.

Without exception, my students always love watching this video. Sometimes they even applaud. Sometimes they even applaud without mention of extra credit. The video inspires. It motivates. It makes them know that they can get it done.

Here’s how Dove empowers my students–and all of us– to come to that understanding. The stanzas that follow are directly from her poem. They recount the poet’s journey home, as a 15-year-old, carrying six volumes of knowledge–six books that she selected on her learning journey:

“I carried [the books] home, past five blocks of aluminum siding
and the old garage where, on its boarded-up doors,
someone had scrawled:

“I can eat an elephant
if I take small bites.

“Yes, I said, to no one in particular: That’s
what I’m gonna do!”

Overwhelmed? My students? Me? You? All of us?

Of course, we are. To be overwhelmed is to be human.

Thankfully, we’re not overwhelmed all of the time. But when we are, isn’t it great to know that we have wisdom as our ally–all the way from Confucius to Franklin to Lamott to Dove? Isn’t it great to know that we have wisdom cheering us every step of the way? As we carry away our stones. As we fell our oaks. As we write our birds. As we eat our elephants. As we get it done.

Isn’t it great knowing that a little gr!t will gr!t ‘r done?

It certainly calms me. And just as soon as I finish grading end-of-semester assignments and final reflection essays, I’m going to polish that nugget of truth as I face my next mountain: gardens (right here on my mountain) overtaken by a gazillion weeds, all reaching for the stars.

And guess what else? I will pump myself up just as I try to pump up my students–just as I have tried to pump you up here, so that you can face your own mountains, whatever they might be–and believe you me: I will tackle my mountain, and I will gr!t ‘r done.

Directions to the Magical Land of Ideas

My ideas usually come not at my desk writing but in the midst of living.

Anaïs Nin

Without doubt, I love all of the English classes that I teach, but my Creative Writing classes always tug a little tighter at my heartstrings. I think I know why. We write. We draft. We workshop. We revise. We share. We bond. Together.

Aside from valuing writers’ bond, I like writing with my students because I want them to see that seasoned writers struggle perhaps as much as fledgling writers. I want them to see that writing is work. No, I want them to see that writing is hard work. More, I want them to see that with lots and lots of mental lifting they can become agile writing gymnasts.

Here’s another reason why I like to write with my students. As an educator, I want to experience, as nearly as possible, what my students experience: coming up with a topic to meet someone else’s requirements; developing a draft; workshopping the draft with peers; revising the draft based on peer feedback and personal afterthoughts; and sharing with the class the woven words of heart, mind, and soul.

Also, as an educator I want to feel the pain of jumping through the same deadline hoops that “the good professor” imposes on his students. It’s a much-needed lesson in humility, one that I can experience every two weeks, since that’s the allotted timeframe for each writing assignment: drafting; workshopping; revising; and sharing. Spread over a 14-week semester, I am humbled seven times.

In the past, I’ve done my “writing-with-my-students” stint once or twice each semester, eventually bowing out as the semester progressed because of the full range of my professorial responsibilities, namely commitments to other classes. And that is true. Can any full-time professor be a full-time writer? I doubt it.

My students, generally, are full-time students with the full range of their own full-time student responsibilities, and yet I expect them to be full-time writers, too.

This semester I promised myself that I wouldn’t bow out of writing with my students. Actually, I established more rigorous requirements for me than for them. I decided to write and publish a blog post every week.

I did not make known my personal commitment. Nonetheless, week by week, I chatted with my students about my writing. I wanted them to know that I was writing and that I had my own self-imposed goals and Monday deadlines.

At the end of this semester, we celebrated and reflected on our growth and accomplishments as writers. During my reflections, I projected my blog so that the class could see it on the big screen. Several students follow the blog and others are regular visitors, so they knew already that I had published 24 posts this semester. But those completed posts weren’t at the heart of my sharing. Rather, I wanted to watch their faces when my 17 drafts–at various stages of completion–popped up on the screen.

When I finished, one of my students pinned me to the wall with a pointed question: “Where do you find those ideas?”

How do I answer a question like that? To answer assumes that I can provide directions–a map, if you will–to the magical land where ideas reside.

I wish that I could. Sadly, I can’t.

I’m not certain that I even understand what it means to “find” ideas. Where do I look? And how shall I begin? And how do I know when I’ve found one?

As for me, I don’t go around looking for writing ideas. However, I do go around listening to the world. My world. Inner. Outer.

When I listen–when I am attentive–ideas seem to “find” their way to me. This post is a good example. My student’s question captured my fancy: “Where do you find those ideas?” And in response to his question, I shared with the class a writing idea that found its way to me that very morning.

Its working title is “Growing Up More than Once.” While driving to campus, I had been thinking about Fall 2022 as my last semester of teaching. In the midst of my reverie, I had an insight. I’ve grown up three times. Once in the traditional way that we all grow up and launch our own lives. Next was growing up as a researcher and scholar at the University of South Carolina and the Library of Congress. Now I’ve grown up as an educator at Lord Fairfax Community College. And as this phase comes to an end, another phase will open, giving me an opportunity to grow up once more! I will share no more for now. Otherwise, I won’t have anything more to say when I get around to writing that post.

But here’s my point. I didn’t go looking for that idea.  Seemingly, the idea came looking for me. And as soon as it found me, I captured the tentative title and a barebones outline in a WordPress draft as soon as I walked into my office and turned on my computer. Some might call it journaling. But it’s not. I don’t journal. For me, it’s simpling listening. It’s being attentive. Then it’s taking the time to honor an idea that found its way to me.

The same thing holds true for this post. It found me during class when my student asked, “Where do you find those ideas?” Perhaps equally important, the question continued to abide with me as I drove home. Now here I am extending my answer to Morgan through this post. The idea found me; called for–no, demanded–exploration; and I’m honoring the call.

I’ve just shared how one idea found me while teaching and how another idea found me while driving. Other ideas find me when I least expect to be found. Biking, indoors and out. Listening to gospel music. Taking a shower. Pulling weeds in my garden.

For me, it seems that whenever I lose myself–whenever I’m doing something that takes me away from me–a door opens and an idea enters, hoping for home and for honor.

Those are the best directions that I can give to the magical land of ideas.