On the Nothingness of Writing in a Fractured World
Why our schools must embrace the teaching of good writing to every unique and unrepeatable child
I sat at the desk and stared at the plaque my husband had gifted me a few years back, a black and white print emblazoned with Ernest Hemingway’s line: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at the typewriter and bleed.” I love that quote, but that day it was of no comfort to me as I was increasingly overcome, like a gray cloud gradually but determinedly making its way across the sun, by the creeping realization that I had nothing left to bleed. Far worse than writer’s block, this was writer’s despair: that harrowing discovery that you have nothing original to say; that anything you might want to say has already been said, probably many times over, each one far better than you could ever hope to try.
I was just about to throw up my hands and throw away my pencil when, as usual, thoughts of my kids pulled me back from the brink: If there’s no innovation left for me, how much more definitive must that be for the next generation? Yet that couldn’t be true. Young as they are, I’ve already experienced my kids’ originality and one-of-a-kind creativity countless times. Of course they had something important to say, and of course they had to be taught to write well in order to say it properly. Something about my writer’s despair had to be a lie, so I started over.
If we believe that each human being is unique and unrepeatable, called by God to a singular purpose in accordance with His plans, then it follows that each human being enjoys a unique and unrepeatable vantage point of the world. This doesn’t mean we’re nothing but original, of course: Our common humanity dictates that we share deep bonds of needs, longings, and understanding, tracing back to the very beginnings of our existence. But it does mean we each have something to say that no one else can. Because no one can intuitively see things entirely through another person’s eyes, each of us has something important to communicate if we’re all to enjoy the broadest possible horizon and collectively conform our minds as much as possible to reality.
This makes writing well an imperative. Especially in our increasingly fractured world, in which “the other’s” perspective is too often demonized at the very moment it should be considered thoughtfully, good writers must continue to contribute to the conversation. Clear and sanguine pens must articulate such interesting and reasonable perspectives that readers turn their attention from the chaotic din of strife and say to themselves, “I never thought about it like that before.”
It’s the main reason I pretty well despise Google’s “Smart Compose” tool for my kids. Admittedly convenient and often right in its predictions for routine correspondence, I nonetheless fear it will lead them away from original thinking. I worry that half-formed thoughts struggling to find expression will lose out to the seemingly superior and highly unoriginal expectations of artificial intelligence. If that happens, we will surely miss some precious opportunities to learn from one another.
Fortunately, the classical schools to which I send my kids start with the proposition that each human being is matchless, irreplaceable, and worthy of being heard. To that end, they strive to educate students in a positive and dynamic culture of literacy and good writing, daily sharing with them the rewards of this extraordinary art form. I haven’t spoken to the teachers about it, but my strong suspicion is that Smart Compose is universally disfavored by the schools’ faculties, and I’m thankful for it.
None of us can know what our kids will have to say in the years to come. We can’t foresee how they will be asked to share their stories, their perspectives, or their lives with others. It will likely require courage. It will undoubtedly demand solid preparation, a cool head, and a pure heart. What we do know is that the world will be impoverished if our children don’t speak up. It’s our responsibility, then, to teach them how to sit at the typewriter and bleed. I’m grateful for the partners I’ve found in Our Lady of Mount Carmel School and Lumen Gentium Academy for this unique and unrepeatable task.
Johanna Webber, an attorney and mother of 8, lives with her husband in New Jersey. Their oldest daughter is a cadet at the United States Air Force Academy and their second is a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Daughter number three attends Lumen Gentium Academy, a classical high school in the Catholic tradition and the next four children attend Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Boonton. The youngest, a two year old, keeps Johanna on her toes all day long.