Racing to Catch a Plane

Photo By Nino Andonis
Pho­to By Nino Andonis

I was work­ing the last day of a book con­fer­ence in Chica­go when I came down with a hor­ri­ble case of what I lat­er learned was strep throat. My one clear mem­o­ry of that day is blink­ing alert long enough to rec­og­nize that I was seat­ed in the front seat of a cab that was being dri­ven down the shoul­der of a Chica­go high­way at 70 MPH so that we could make it to the air­port on time.

I’ve had oth­er work expe­ri­ences from the dark side, but that day ranks high on the list of “please, just let it be over” times.

We can expe­ri­ence an urgency around reach­ing the end­point when we’re on a trip that’s going bad­ly, or we can expe­ri­ence it when we’re writ­ing — even if the writ­ing is going well. It’s some­thing that I see over and over again, in fact, when I review stu­dent writ­ing. I’ll be read­ing along, feel­ing like the student’s sto­ry is well-paced and engag­ing, and then sud­den­ly the writ­ing changes. It begins rac­ing towards the finish line, as if the writer has sud­den­ly remem­bered that they have a plane to catch. Some­times very young writ­ers I work with lit­er­al­ly stop the sto­ry mid-thought and write “The End.”

If you ask, they’ll prob­a­bly tell you that they’ve run out of ideas. But the truth is, they’ve prob­a­bly run out of cre­ative ener­gy. I find that my own writ­ing is very ener­gy-based; when the ener­gy is gone, the writ­ing stops cold. When this hap­pens, your best bet is to allow your stu­dents to take a short break. For a short­er class­room writ­ing set­ting, that might be as sim­ple as a jump­ing jacks inter­rup­tion. For a longer piece of writ­ing, I find I some­times need to put the project in a draw­er for a week or more, to allow new ener­gy to generate.

When the break is over, I sit down with the stu­dent (or myself), and find the point in the sto­ry where it’s clear that the writer switched over to a men­tal­i­ty of “rac­ing to catch a plane.” I read the para­graph before that, and then I ask a sim­ple ques­tion: “What hap­pens next?”

More often than not, the break will have done the trick. Erasers get busy and rub out “The End.” The writer has dis­cov­ered that after all, “the sto­ry must go on.”

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