Faculty Blog


Listen and Learn: A Calm Sea Never a Captain Makes

Sometimes I hate my boat. However, hating a needy pile of wood, sail, and line is less distressing than what it teaches me about myself. My trying to remove the stubborn barnacles from the bottom-sides after eight months in drydock is a harsh reminder that ten minutes of a simple power-washing on Labor Day would have negated the hours of cursing, scraping, and crawling on the back-stabbing scree of a New England boatyard that occupied my day yesterday. Years ago I blithely and absent-mindedly watched as a friend showed me how to make a wire splice. Tomorrow I am paying some old salt two hundred dollars to splice the wire needed to haul my halyard. Damn me! I should be that old salt by now, not some humble yuppie with a romantic notion of the sea, willing to pay twice just to learn once. The list could go on, (but so could my self-loathing). Sometimes, too, we hate what we write and what we’ve become as writers because we know that we did not listen to the old curmudgeon (in my case Sister Jean Beatrice) droning in front of us in English class about the virtues of punctuation. We write and ineffectually remember that there is something missing from our repertoire of skills—skills that we learned once but cast off as detritus from a bygone age.  

In my youth I learned a lot about sailing and boat building, but I never really went to sea on my own, and so my skills were not reinforced by the granite memory of experience. The dream remained alive, while the lost knowledge now looms like an apparition in the distance, like the ghost of an early death, haunting and enchanting in the same breath. I am relearning and re-remembering because I have to regain the footing of my nautical dream and make that first new turn out of the harbor. 

Learning the ropes is equally true for the writer: don't neglect the small details—the placing of commas, the quotes within quotes, the run-ons, the introductory phrases, conjunctions, and pronouns, colons and semi-colons—that help you construct, repair, and clarify your thoughts and ideas and that somehow keeps together the sweeping power of great poetry and literature. They are the bolts and screws and planks that hold the boat together. Everything you've learned about writing is important and useful to the crafting of your words. It was, after all, a simple wire splice keeping me in port! If you are young, cling to what you learn and keep it close to your heart. If you are old, unearth and restore the memories you need to face the day and the empty page with confidence and courage. Build upon what you already know and sail towards your own dreams. 

Ultimately, a Captain is only made at sea, not on land. As an English teacher I drive my students crazy by writing long preambles to my assignments; I hide the details of what is due tomorrow in a labyrinth of reflections, observations, and admonitions. They beg me to just highlight in bold what they need to do. I get away with it because I can. It bothers them that I just assume they want to become better writers.  I write because I love to write, but I, too, have a long way to go before I can call myself a captain. The few knots I know won't serve me in every situation I will face. 

The simple act of sustained and attentive writing will make you a better writer, but to combine the act of writing with the focused study of the craft of writing will make you a great writer—a writer who is truly ready to face the open sea! Too much of education separates the bird from the wing, and this is especially true in our more common ways of teaching writing. My own children who are not here with me spend hours of homework time circling prepositional phrases and adverbial clauses in remarkably generic workbooks. I appreciate that they are learning the elemental nature and grammar of language, but, in my cynical moments, I marvel at how lucky their teachers are that the whole class needs work on the same mechanics. I wonder if those teachers are aware that they are creating a flock of awkward flightless birds dawdling around on barren dung heaps because the skills they learn are not tested out in the moiling waters of an angry ocean. There is often nothing to show for all of their labor but a grade and a potentially higher MCAS score. 

The skills we teach our students must be useful in real situations, and those students need to see how those skills have practical value in their personal odyssey as real writers. The poems, songs, stories, reflections, essays, and narratives that we write let us go to sea on our own and discover our greatness and limitations. Without an adventurous journey, it is all too easy to lose the incentive to understand the workings of the viscera that keeps our writing alive. We are all at different places as writers but the scourges of the open sea are the same for all mariners. 

There needs to be a fire in your belly that you tend and stoke and which drives you forward in your journey as a write.

And you keep listening, learning—and wondering. 


Posted by in John Fitzsimmons on Wednesday January, 14, 2015


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