Understanding the Evolution of Change
Of all the words I have ever used to define myself, writer has never been one of them. Every time I write, I write for someone or something else. I write papers for school because I’ve convinced myself that school matters, and I write letters for Amnesty International because issues of justice are important to me. When I first started writing this web-event, it was an assignment that I “had” to do. During a round of revisions, I realized that I was writing for myself. For the first time in my life, I was writing just for myself. So, this is for me, but I want you to read it.
Understanding the Evolution of Change
Even before I knew what words were, I was surrounded by them. Back issues of the New Yorker lived on the dining room table; my family room had bookcases instead of a TV; and weekly trips to the library for new books to read commenced weeks after I was born.
The characters I grew up with shaped me. Harold prompted me to use my imagination and Ramona the Pest encouraged me to try things even if I knew I might get in trouble. Matilda made me excited to read everything and Scout showed me how to make sense of a confusing, stratified world with kindness and bravery. Despite my debt to these characters and their stories, I have never been interested in the process or the people that create them. For as long as I can remember, this has been a job for my older sister, Sarah.
When I was four and she was six, Sarah came home from school one day and declared at the dinner table that she was going to become a writer, like Beverly Cleary, when she grew up. I was little, but impressed. Impressed enough to know that if my big sister had claimed writing as her thing, I would have to find something else.
* * *
I started kindergarten the next year, and learned very quickly how to be very good at the game of school. Even though I played this game really well, I didn’t always learn the things that my teachers were actually trying to teach me. In third grade, I proudly showed my mother a paragraph I had written for homework. It was marked with a smiley face next to a 10/10. She was appalled. Apparently, I did not know how to write, and my teachers seemed to think that I did.
In the following weeks, I overheard several hushed conversations between her and my grandmother as they hashed out a plan to make me into a good writer. In my mind, my sister had gotten all of the “writing genes” in my family-- I would never be good at writing no matter how hard I tried. Plus, I was getting perfect grades! I was sure that the matriarchs of my family were creating a hullabaloo over a non-issue.
My mother and grandmother, cared little about petty sibling rivalries and my perfect grades. Much to my chagrin, they made my writing into an issue. It was OK with them if I did not want to be a writer like Sarah, but I still had to know how to write well. For the rest of elementary school, my mom gave me weekly writing lessons and when I moved to middle school, I had a writing tutor. In high school, my formal tutoring sessions ended, but my mom usually asked to see rough drafts so she could critique them before I redrafted a final copy. Under my mother’s watch, I learned about thesis statements, commas, argument, transitions, and conclusions. I had worked hard and I believe became a better writer. By this time, my sister had written several op-ed pieces for a local newspaper, she received a massive scholarship to study creative writing at a small boarding school in Michigan, and she had gotten into Yale. My achievements in writing paled in comparison to hers, and feelings of incompetency lingered on.
These feelings shaped my first year of college. My freshman year, I avoided writing classes as much as I could. Luckily, I could not avoid them completely--I had to take a freshman writing seminar. In my writing seminar, my professor introduced writing as a collaborative process. I was used to sharing my writing with my mom, and I was also used to the screaming matches that usually resulted from this collaboration. I had never shared anything that I had written with my peers, and I felt scared when I traded papers with my first writing partner. Thankfully, by the end of the semester, it felt natural and good to share my works in progress. In my writing seminar, I learned to value the comments my peers wrote on my papers instead of resenting the work that their red ink implied.
* * *
In preparation for writing this web-event, I thought a lot about why I came to all of these realizations in my first semester of college. I thought that if I knew what prompted my “break” in thinking about writing, I would be able to anticipate when another “break” was on the horizon. Further, I wanted to understand all of the intricacies of my “break” so that I could induce their general principles and apply them to form a more complete understanding of what causes people to “break” or change their deeply seeded beliefs.
This was difficult.
First, I thought about the origins of my “break.” My mind ran around in infuriating circles. I couldn’t decide if distance from my mother, introduction to a new way of writing, or spending hours and hours in the writing center had made me “break.” Even all three of these possibilities taken together did not feel significant enough to attribute my “break” to them. Eventually, I decided that every single experience that I had ever had with words, led to the slow emergence of my new understanding of writing.
My thoughts about writing began their evolution when my parents first exposed me to words as a baby. First, I just loved listening to stories; at four, I was intimidated by my sister’s declaration; in school, I was confident because my teachers gave me good grades; then, confidence turned into insecurity and, at times, defiance; finally, I emerged, ready to accept process and revision.
Despite my more enlightened understanding of writing, artifacts from previous epochs remain. I still love reading and being read to; I’m still impressed by my sister’s ability to make words do exactly what she wants them to; I still feel accomplished when I get good grades; and I still don’t like to write.
* * *
My past will always be a part of me. No one can “break” away from their past.
To some, this may sound defeatist. I think it’s exciting. By rejecting the concept of “breaking,” we can consider change as a process rather than a product (like writing!). Instead of thinking about change as a “break,” or a departure, from the past, change becomes the walk people inevitably take as they move through their lives. Change becomes the questions their teachers ask them about why they believe and act the way they do. Change becomes questions about the future. Change eventually becomes the future. In this way, change is universal. If everybody and everything experiences change no matter what, then we don’t need radical, polarizing revolutions, or well funded super PACs, or fancy rhetoric.
We just need time.
The slow process of making the world a more beautiful and peaceful place to live in will happen, no matter what, if we just make time to listen deeply to people who think differently from us, if we just make time to give thanks for the abundance that produced and sustains us, if we just make time for hugs, if we just make time for conversation, if we just make time for love.