February 4th, 2008

more from school

I don’t like to write about my favorite things. I learned this while doing my homework. Our class had to generate a list of our favorite things, including, but not limited to, our favorite color, season, month, etc. Then we were told to rank the items, which is a weird concept in itself: Is red more my favorite color than books are my favorite pastime? Are my kids my favorite relatives more than football is my favorite sport?

In class, we did a period of free writing on the fourth item on our list, which in my case was my favorite color. Part of the purpose of the exercise was to teach us about what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts” in my second-favorite book about writing. I suspect that my instructor was also drawing on my favorite book about writing, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, which advocates the timed writing exercise as a way to tap into the true writing beneath our careful sentences.

For homework, we had to do free writing on the rest of our top four items and eventually revise and polish one of the four pieces into a 200-word essay. The assignment was straightforward enough except that we also had to model our essay on a not-entirely-wonderful one by a woman whose favorite word is “small.” And we had one other totally pointless rule to follow; we had to begin with, “My favorite _____ is _____.”

I am following the rules in this class for two reasons. One: I am a shameless grade-grubber and will do almost anything for points. Two: I hope to develop some character or possibly some humility in the process. Spiritual discipline must come slightly more easily if you have confidence that your leader is enlightened. See what I mean about needing that humility?

Digressions aside, I learned, while attempting to write about football, books, and my kids, that I’m afraid to touch those things with my words. The closer I got to my heart, the harder it was. I can blather about red for a good long time, throwing in the odd literary allusion (My instructor is a poet, so I figure using my poetry reserves will help. I think he also is into astrology, but I’m not entirely sure what to do with that knowledge.). I’ve had to try to explain exactly what it is I see in football to enough disbelieving people that it was easy enough to spend 15 minutes filling lines with pen marks, but even then I found myself focusing on the intellectual appeal of the game rather than the places where it touches me.

It was worse with books. It’s not hard to say that I appreciate the smell of paper, the thrill of the new road laid out in neat rows of type. I can say that I feel at home with friends and family when I sit between my bookshelves. But. I don’t want to give away my best summer, the one I spent mostly floating on a raft in the pool with one mildewy library book after another. Nor do I want to think too much about why that was the best one. Puberty hadn’t yet landed on me like a safe. While I was reading, I wasn’t worrying about what I hadn’t done, how I had fallen short. I was away from the vague sense of unhappiness that would crystallize over the next year.

I think it might be like the people who hesitate to say good things about what they love lest they inadvertently lose them to jealous spirits.

Nah. I’m just a chicken.