I’m kicking off this post with a quote from a pope. I’ll bet that wasn’t what you expected when you showed up here today, and I hope you’ll bear with me. I’m going somewhere with this, and it has nothing to do with religion.
Last Sunday at Mass, this line came up in the homily. I had to go home and Google to find the specific words, and the specific pope.
“Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” –Pope Paul VI
As soon as I heard this I looked over at Chris and whispered, “That’s why I can’t write that book!” And he looked back at me perplexed, as if I were whispering in tongues.
I couldn’t stop myself from whispering. It was one of those moments when you hear something in an unexpected context that illuminates some other thought you’ve been having, and the connection feels so unbelievable that you want to shout out, “That’s it!”
I couldn’t shout out there in church, obviously; I couldn’t even elaborate to my poor, baffled husband. But since we’re not sitting in church now, let me explain.
I’ve been struggling with my writing for the past year or so. Not my writing per se, but my mission, I suppose. I hinted about it in this post, when I chattered about how I missed writing personal essays, and was considering putting aside the writing book for parents that I’d been tinkering with for several years.
Tinkering with. Making notes on. Lots of notes. But not really writing, that book.
I had lots of excuses about why I wasn’t writing it. I needed to do more research! I needed to establish myself as an expert! I needed to build my audience!
The real reason was more subtle, and it took me a while to pinpoint: These days, I don’t want to be a teacher.
I came to writing personal essays after dabbling in short stories, and then poetry. Essays felt most suited to practical, matter-of-fact-but-prone-to-wondering me. What I love most about essays is their musing-ness. They raise more questions than they answer. The best ones aren’t didactic. They don’t tell you what to think–they take you along on a thought process.The word essay comes from the French essai, which means an attempt. In an essay a writer attempts to work something out, and if that essay is done well, the reader will start thinking and working things out too. His or her own things.
If you don’t quite get what I mean by a personal essay, you might check out the essay project I dove into a few years back. Or read some of the fantastic ones I’ve been reading on Full Grown People. Or think of it this way: personal essays are life stories laced with wondering.
I love the art of the personal essay, but it’s also a format I feel comfortable writing in. I would rather wonder about my own life than tell you what to do with yours. I don’t want to write chapters about encouraging kids to write, in a how-to format, as if I have all the answers. I did that with my book on facilitating writer’s workshops, I suppose, but that was a very specific, particular topic. But writing with kids! It’s a huge topic, and the thought of narrowing it down into comprehensive chapters sounds about as daunting as eating a smoothie with chopsticks.
Plus, I think that pope was on to something. We learn more from witnesses than we do from teachers.
I’ve been a witness to and a participant in homeschooling for more than sixteen years now. I have lots of stories to tell. And I sense that sharing my stories, along with my worries and moments of delight, will inspire you to think of your own life and your own kids, and come up with your own ideas and plans more than a how-to book ever could. Although personal essays may seem self-indulgent, I think they leave more room for the reader than how-to writing does. There’s space for you to wonder and come up with your own conclusions.
It’s not that I’m not interested in the topic of kids and writing; it’s still one of the best things to drop into a conversation if you want to get me worked up and rambly. I’m happy to offer suggestions, possibilities, and I’m sure I’ll keep doing that here. But I don’t want to pitch my energy into being some sort of expert on kids and writing.
I don’t want to tell you what to do with your kids. I don’t know your kids. You do.
The other morning, I explained this to my dear poet friend Melissa. We’ve read and offered feedback on each other’s work for years, although it’s been a while now. Catching up over coffee, I nattered on about these thoughts. And she said something wise: That makes sense. It’s how you’ve approached homeschooling with your kids.
Precisely! I stopped thinking of myself as my kids’ teacher long ago. I find resources for them. I pay attention to what fires them up. I look for opportunities that might excite them. I do what they like to do alongside them. I help them recognize the small steps needed to get to their goals. I try to encourage their curiosity, their questions, because this is how they become their own teachers–and when they do that, the possibilities are limitless.
How can I take that approach to homeschooling–and then turn it into a book that makes me a teacher again? It would feel like wearing someone else’s shoes.
But essays about homeschooling? That I can do!
Except. There is virtually no market for personal essays on homeschooling.
Hmph! I have been stewing on this conundrum for years. Sure, there are homeschooling magazines, but their audiences are fairly circumscribed, and not necessarily meshed with my own thinking. Plus, the writing tends to take the form of articles more than musing essays. So in the past several months I’ve directed my writing to more general parenting topics, like I did in that Lemony Snicket essay. Meanwhile I’ve stewed and wondered and longed to write about homeschooling, somewhere beyond this blog. It’s the story I have to tell at this point in my life.
And then one Tuesday morning, an opportunity fell not on my lap, but on my computer keyboard, like a petal drifting down from a magnolia tree. There’s a new homeschooling magazine out there, and it’s a beauty. Have you seen home | school | life? (There’s a sneak peek of the first issue at that link.) It’s the magazine I wish I’d had back when I started homeschooling–modern, fresh, full of inspiration and different homeschooling philosophies. When I realized that the magazine’s founder was the same Amy who interviewed me for her smaller, local magazine last year, I wrote to congratulate her. As fate would have it, just as I was posting that blog comment, an email came in from Amy, reintroducing herself and telling me that our previous interview was part of the national magazine’s first issue. A few emails flew back and forth and by the next morning I was a columnist for her magazine.
That’s right, people, a regular gig writing about homeschooling. Dream job! Starting with the summer issue I’ll be writing essays on homeschooling life. Yes, it’s just one column a quarter, but somehow having that forum for writing on homeschooling opens up the possibilities in a way I hadn’t expected. When it comes to homeschooling, I think, most of us don’t want to be told how to do it. What we really want is to know how others do it, day after day, year after year. We want to know what works for other families and what doesn’t. We want to be crouched in the corners of their homes, spying and learning, so we can find our own way.
We want to hear the testimony of witnesses.
(Shh, I’m whispering, like we’re in church together: Maybe, just maybe, there might be a different book here. Not a how-to book, but a collection of essays on homeschooling. The book I wish I’d had when I started out. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)