November 7, 2019

May These Words Be of Benefit: Lessons from the Elephant Journal Classroom.

I’ve written nearly every day for as long as I can remember.

I’ve never taken a writing course—until now. I find myself anything but speechless. May these words be of benefit.

“We’re not here to make you happy. You’re not a consumer, you’re much more than that. You’re a voice. We’re here to help you find your voice, and learn how to drop the guilt-tripping, tent-peg your dreams down into daily mindful habits, and befriend your writer’s block.

We’re here to help you get specific, so you can find catharsis, the joy of unburdening, and being of benefit simultaneously.

We’re here to comment and give feedback, not be your grammarly. You don’t want to edit your work until it’s done, but you need, I need, feedback and guidance, pong to your ping, along the way.

We’re here, if you like, to help you market—share—and sell your work. Or, if you prefer, we’re here to stand back in amazement at your letting drop one word, as if a tear, from your heart, for the first time—a most profound moment in this human life’s path.

This busy-ness that is with you will be with you for the rest of your life. Learn to disrespect it, with a sense of troublemaking joy!” ~ Waylon Lewis 

Beautiful, right? That is the message that inspired this post. That’s what good teachers do: inspire.

You most likely do not know me, but I bet you’ve heard of Waylon Lewis, editor in chief of this here little magazine, Elephant Journal, that so generously offers a platform to share our writing. Platform is a bit sterile for what this is to me. Maybe, more romantically—a home. 

Writing is home to me. Like a tortoise who carries her shell, her home wherever she goes, writing has been my shell, my home. Writing is my first, second, and third love—in hope or in heartbreak, I turn to writing. Whether hastily scribbled lines about my dreams in a spiral notebook while still tucked beneath my night-navy sheets, or since entering this class, sitting for a dedicated hour or more, daily, working on a project—I write.

I write on my silver, sticker-covered MacBook Air. I write on my phone, with its cracked screen protector, while listening to noontime concertos at the local library. I write in the crowded teahouse, bustling with bundled students and tender-maybe-lovers. I write in my cozy, Pendleton-draped, corner chair—my pug crowding me. Everywhere, I write. 

As much as I play hide-and-seek with my sanity and comfort in my writing, it is also the thing I most want to share. Words flow from my heart, alchemizing and poeticizing pain, longing, and love. Communicating honestly about what is hard, human, holy, and important. 

These matters that cannot be conveyed clearly from within a shell. This class is bringing me out of mine. 

“I’m not here to be made happy. 

I’m here to grow, to see what it really takes to successfully touch people with my words, build a sustainable practice with my craft and engage with all these other beautiful creative beings, who have deeply touched my heart. 

I’m grateful for the expert eyes and clear instructions. 

Already, I have received so much— growing my skills as an editor and writer and some unexpected healing. Hopefully I have offered something of benefit too.” ~ Justice Bartlett, Elephant Academy alumni (me)  

I left that comment under Waylon’s post in The Parade of Editorial Apprentices: the Facebook group where we, who are in Elephant Academy, gather to share our stories and support with each other. Where we write, read, and edit each other’s work. It’s a busy-friendly online space, and, as I write this, a little grief bubbles as this whole whirlwind experience will too soon come to an end.

Though our time together is entirely too brief—I will treasure this process forever. 

Is the class perfect? Don’t be absurd. Nothing is perfect. 

This is the rumble of a herd of elephants finding their way through the plains of creative chaos, to the community watering hole, trumpeting, spraying, playing, and stumbling along the way! We are poets and storytellers. We are healing heartbreak, sharing humor, and writing words that lift each other in joy. We are finding our voice. It’s marvelous and a bit messy. 

Perfection is overrated. If we wait for perfection before implementing our dreams, we would all shrivel in isolation with only our neuroses for companions, and not a blessed thing would be created. 

I want to hold my words until they are perfect. I don’t want anyone to see. Criticism can be so painful. Not many are adept at pointing out what can be improved while simultaneously leaving a person’s sense of integrity intact. Or, at least, that was my experience previously. In this class we are learning how to offer and receive constructive criticism. 

My own inner critic has removed her sharp nails from my neurons in the presence of caring community and skillful mentors. This has been a welcome, if unexpected healing brought about by some of the most honest, compassionately delivered feedback I have ever received. 

The herd is full of wild wisdom and warm humor and they, my fellow students, who may be as nervous as I, are generous and caring and it is encouraging. We’re in it together, bonding, helping, and holding each other accountable. Writing is a solitary practice, but community feeds creativity.

We all want to be good little girls and boys who get patted on the head. We want those gold stars. What we more often need though, is that teacher who will lovingly circle every single word we write in red and directly and kindly remind us, “You can do better.”

Somehow, and rather sweetly, we students have become that loving, red-pen-wielder with each other. Editors eyes reveal the inherent magic, spells woven with words. 

Abracadabra, that silly word we all know, is actually derived from the Aramaic phrase, avra kehdabra, meaning, “I will create as I speak.” Words weave real magic, holy-human magic that sparks our minds and hearts.

There is magic in presence, that’s why the present is a gift.

Three gifts I’ve received from my time in the Elephant Academy:

The first gift: I have given myself structure for my writing—the creation of my own sustainable, daily practice. I now see what it takes to make writing a priority. Time, focus, and dedication.

The second gift: editing skills, to see words and their structure as a path to connection. Waylon keeps reminding us that editing is not only an invaluable skill in writing, but for life as well. It makes us better friends, lovers, and more valuable in the workforce—we become better communicators.

The third gift: the community, itself. I have no doubt we will remain connected and continue to share our words and lives and inspire each other.

To not collapse creatively, to build structure in my life sharing purposeful passion, with my words as the messengers of honesty to the world—that is my greatest hope.

After all, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” ~ Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1839

We must know ourselves deeply to be a clear channel for this inspiration. This is not work for the faint of heart. Though often geeky and rather introverted, we writers are full of courage!

“Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences—good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as ‘ordinary’ courage.” ~ Brené Brown

We who are creatively called pull the jewels of our innards out and turn them over and over in the light, cutting, polishing, and bringing out the beauty of the natural stone that is already there. We cut cliché and delve into detail. My toes twitch in my purple Smart Wool socks, anticipatory, as I type to you.

We as artists, as writers, must be willing to dig deep to excavate our own well. Clarity leads to catharsis. Specificity to better communication. 

I watch as my words land on the screen, scrawl over paper, and hope they will touch someone’s heart someday, somewhere—that these words will make a difference. 

Thank you, Elephants, readers, writers, and scribblers everywhere. Thank you Waylon, Molly, Marisa, Emily, and all the Eleditors. With open hearts, we raise our trunks and our pens.

Sound the call! May it be of benefit. 


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