Our Semicolons, Ourselves (gift link), an article by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, is an inspiring description of the challenges of writing and how the struggle keeps some from writing and encourages others to persist. I encourage you to savor his words and consider your view of your writer self.
For me this article had me reflecting on my experience as a writer. For there was a time in my life I sincerely believed I could not write. I am happy to report I eventually proved myself wrong. Here’s how several life experiences came together to turn my writing frown upside down.
When my daughter was entering seventh grade, I grilled her new teacher about the coming content of the year. At the time, I was remembering my seventh grade teacher, Miss Hawkins, who drilled into me the distinctions between gerund, participle, and infinitive as well as the proper use of the semicolon. When I questioned my daughter’s teacher about the prospects of learning grammar, he replied there were no such plans. He assured me the students could learn what was needed through spell check. (I kid you not!)
For several reasons, I withdrew my daughter from seventh grade a month in and homeschooled her through seventh and eighth grade. Part of the curriculum I created focused on grammar including sentence diagramming. She loved learning this skill because she loved the logic entailed in the analysis.
The other experience which came to mind was my Shodo lessons in Tokyo during my junior year abroad. (Shodo is Japanese calligraphy learned using a brush.) I joined my first lesson surrounded by 7 or 8 elementary students, all sheepishly stealing glances at the foreigner invading their study space.
The kind teacher showed me how to set up my writing space, mix the ink using water and an ink block, and set the paper weight on the paper while I wrote. Showing me how to hold the brush and apply the point to the paper, she wrote one large character in black ink on an A4-sized sheet of white paper. The character was infinity, chosen because it contains almost all of the brush strokes possible within Shodo. This exhibit became my otehon — literally hand book — and I was to look at it and then do my best to create on a new piece of paper something which resembled the otehon.
For three lessons, she gave me the same character to practice. During lessons and between I made hundreds of attempts. Each lesson, she would go through each example and critique my effort using red ink. The goal was to get hana-maru — a flower with a spiral center. Needless to say, the first attempts were feeble at best. However, her critique helped me refine my skill and understand the physics of the brush and ink. By the third lesson, I finally did one which garnered the coveted hana-maru and all the students cheered congratulations.
At the fourth lesson, when I was again presented with infinity for my otehon, I decided to ask the teacher a process question. I wanted to know the objective. Was I to create an infinity character which looked exactly like hers?
No, she replied. The point is, in trying to replicate something like hers, myinfinity would learn to come out from within me. The objective was for me to find mine within me through practice. We all have our own way, and that’s the point of studying Shodo. We all must learn to find our own paths in life. That’s what Shodo means — literally writing path — a way to learn to write, a road of self understanding.
Yet, we do not need to do this alone. This is why we learn from a sensei — a person with prior learning and experience. Together, the student learns from the teacher how to find their individual path.
The last memory was what I thought of myself as a writer when I graduated from high school. The experience of three years in a prep school learning to write academic research papers left a mark on my soul convincing me I was not a writer. Invariably, I would get halfway through an English paper, think of at least five ways in which I could invalidate the argument I had just labored over and then turn in something which embarrassed me.
Not until my early 30s did I begin writing again. I did so because I had clients who asked I write down what I had just explained. This led to me to write a book within my field. Then this led to four years of intensive research using all the skill I had learned in junior and senior high school.
As I struggled and fought with myself to work on the book, infinity kept coming to mind. Then one day I read something I had written the day before and I saw hana-maru. I realized I had found my path and my writing was reflecting my voice. The elements had come together and I delighted in the sound and the motion and the joy which seemed to infuse each word and paragraph.
We all have our own paths and, I had finally found mine. I published my first book in 2010 and it won the Montaigne Medal for a book which “illuminates and progresses thought.” I’ve gone on to publish a dozen more along with numerous articles and courses.
Like so much in life there is an intersection between skill and art, technique and voice. Without the knowledge of skill, writing fights to find structure and coherency. Writing without voice is heartless and unattractive.
Yes, powerful words can come with bad grammar and punctuation. Yet when the comma is in the right place, the voice doesn’t need to fight to be heard.
And like much in life, finding one’s path and one’s voice requires effort and persistence as the chaff falls away and our essential nature emerges illuminated by a properly placed semicolon.