For years I’ve preached Robert Frost’s advice, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” as my writing gospel, so last month I was taken aback in the middle of a class when I realized yet another marvelous dimension of this philosophy: If genuine, open-hearted engagement (that is, the willingness to be surprised) is the basic ingredient of the creative process, then we all, each and every one of us ordinary people who write, have the capacity to move a reader.
Some part of us knows this already. We’ve all sat through the rare memorial service when the grieving grandchild reads some rough rendering of the departed one’s life and sets the entire congregation weeping. Most everyone has received a card or email or old fashioned letter from a loved one that we’ve tucked away because it matters so much. When I taught seventh grade my struggling students always wrote the best poetry in the class because they were raw and real and not caught up trying to be someone they weren’t. The writing of ordinary people just being themselves can move us deeply.
Because I’m all caught up in learning to write well and in teaching others to write well, I often forget this. But last month’s insight sent me back to Brenda Ueland, the beloved Minneapolitan author of If You Want to Write and Strength to your Sword Arm, to whom I’m very grateful for helping me establish good priorities early on in my teaching and writing. “Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say” is the first chapter in her first book. “Interestingness” is an infection, she says. “The writer has a feeling and utters it from his true self. The reader reads it and is immediately infected. He has exactly the same feeling. This is the whole secret of enchantment, fascination.” Tears and surprise for the writer, tears and surprise for the reader.
Surprise! This is possible for all of us. Talent and skill and craft and effort will all increase the effectiveness of our writing, but the foundation for stirring a reader’s heart is profoundly and generously democratic. The key, Ueland reminds me, is telling the truth and writing from our true selves, never the self we think we should be. Therein lies the challenge, for my seventh grade poets and you holiday letter-writers and all those tweeters out there and winners of National Book Awards. Write on, and write the truth! –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew