Still Writing

still-writingLast month I read Dani Shapiro‘s book Still Writinga memoir/writing advice hybrid that fellow educator and blogger Catherine Flynn had recommended after we discovered we both were fans of Shapiro’s novels. Of all the things I’ve been meaning to read—from the mountain of books stacked up on my nightstand to the dozens of titles on my amazon wish list—I wasn’t quite sure why I decided to pick that one at that time. But as I started reading, it became clear to me that this was a book my soul needed.

You see, I’m still writing the book I’ve been working on for two years—still wrestling, struggling, wildly swinging back and forth between exhilaration, frustration and despair, and often kicking myself for making the fact that I was writing another book so public. And so I needed to be reminded that what I was trying to do was, in fact, really hard, which Dani Shapiro did. As she writes:

When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder. The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again. That everything we ever write will be flawed . . . [and] all we can hope is that we will fail better.

I also needed to do what Shapiro does herself: “to remember that the job—as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy—of the [writer] is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it.”

Of course, that’s easier said that done. And why I ever thought that writing a book I was hoping to call Embracing Complexity (alas, that title’s now been taken, which is yet another thing that derailed me) would be easy is beyond me. But I share this now to answer the “When will the book be coming out?” questions (the answer is simply not yet), and because working on it for as long as I Failurehave—and feeling like it’s still not quite there—has made me have to stare something in the face that’s been getting a lot of press lately: failure.

As you may have noticed, there’s been much touting of the benefits of failure lately, whether it’s in posts like “What Do Students Lose by Being Perfect? Valuable Failure” on the educational site Mind/Shift or in articles like “What If the Secret to Success is Failure?” in the New York Times. Posts and articles like these suggest that failure is good for us because because when we fail “we’re forced to adapt and change” and we learn important life lessons, like success rarely comes without lots of hard work and the importance of not giving up.

I’m not saying these aren’t true—nor that a fear of failing can’t destroy a love of learning, which it can. But I’m here to tell you, if you don’t already know, that feeling like you’ve failed really sucks. And the idea of creating scenarios in classrooms that actually set students up to fail (as some of these pieces suggest teachers should do) in order to teach them these lessons seems almost sadistic to me.

What looking at failure in the eye, however, has made me do is to think about how I cope with and manage it. And I have to say it’s not because I’ve embraced what Psychology Today says is the “magical properties of failure [to] rewire the brain and get the creative juices flowing.” Nor do I think it’s because I’ve got grit.

Certainly there are things I persevere with, whether it’s cycling up a hill to reach a stunning vista or plugging away at trying to learn French and Italian. But I’m also someone who regularly abandons books rather than forging on to the end of something I’ve heard is great but doesn’t quite strike my fancy. And I’ve been known to give up on those hills and just walk my bike to the top, despite the fact that my partner David always tells me that I’m capable of making it but I psyched myself out.

PassionNo, what I’ve come to realize is that I only persevere in things I feel passionate about. I’m passionate about moving through a landscape on two wheels propelled by my own two legs. I’m passionate about French and Italian and the soul-stirring places where those languages are spoken. I’m passionate about words and the power of language to change hearts and minds and actions. And I’m passionate about supporting teachers to help their students experience the beauty and power of language, too, whether it’s in the texts they read or the ones they write.

What’s interesting, however, is that passion rarely comes up in discussions about grit—though even Angela Duckworth, whose work inspired the whole grit obsession, concedes the importance of it. In an NPR piece, for instance, called “Does Teaching Kids to Get ‘Gritty’ Help Them Get Ahead,” she says:

I don’t think people can become truly gritty and great at things they don’t love. So when we try to develop grit in kids, we also need to find and help them cultivate their passions. That’s as much a part of the equation here as the hard work and the persistence.”

Why we focus so much on grit and so little on passions speaks, I think, to a belief system that’s much more comfortable with the old puritan nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic than anything as extravagant and potentially unruly as passion. But passion, not grit, is definitely what keeps me going—as well as the intrinsic rewards that Trevor Bryan shared recently on his wonderful blog (and you can see below):


And so I keep writing, believing in what Dani Shapiro says: that writing

has been a privilege. It has whipped my ass. It has burned into me a valuable clarity. It has made me think about suffering, randomness, good will, luck, memory, responsibility, and kindness, on a daily basis—whether I feel like it or not.

Here, for instance, if nothing else, struggling with writing this book has made me remember the power of passion, without which I simply wouldn’t keep going. And writing this blog has renewed that passion, which is getting those creative juices flowing in ways that just grit never has.

And so, as I turn from the blog to the book that is still there waiting for me, I ask you this: What are you doing to cultivate passion in the readers and writers in your rooms? And what passions are you cultivating and nurturing in yourself, knowing that they will fuel and sustain you far more than failure and grit?

Creative Passion

31 thoughts on “Still Writing

  1. I am writing my first press release as I am now the Publication Chair for the Knitting Guild of Greater Buffalo (a group of about 300) and have NO idea on how to write one. So, first things first, I’ve found a number of mentor texts and am currently studying them as well as researching the qualities of this genre. I have a due date for this assignment and will persevere as I am passionate about bringing meaning and challenge into my newly retired life.

    • Funny, Holly, I was thinking about you as I was writing that post, as you’re definitely someone who’s following your passion! Also FYI: I’m in Sweet Home Nov. 2 & 3. Not absolutely sure I’ll have spare time, but if so, I’d love to grab a cup of coffee or tea with you!

  2. Dear Vicki,
    I couldn’t agree more with Dani Shapiro–writing never gets easy. Like you, it’s the hardest thing I do and like you, passion is the only thing that keeps me going back.

    I, for one, am so grateful that you are passionate because no matter how long it takes to write your book, I know it will be worth the wait. Writing struggles have a way of becoming magical when we finally figure them out. Why? Because they represent our very best (and hardest!) thinking. The writing that you do that doesn’t represent your greatest struggle (i.e. this blog!) inspires me, so therefore, I know the product of your greatest struggle will blow my mind. Like I said, the wait will be worth it!

    Hang in there–and thank you for sharing your struggle. It takes courage to be so transparent, and by doing so, you help us all find the bravery it takes to face our own struggles. XOXOXOX

    • Thanks so much, Kim, for the encouraging and supportive words! (And funny how I never fully realized that courage is right inside the word encouraging!) I do finally feel like I turned a corner with this book and the going has gotten a little easier. And interestingly enough, I’ve discovered that it’s a little easier to work on it when I’m blogging occasionally as well – maybe because it make me feel both more connected and successful, which also give me more motivation for the hard, hard work. So excited about your new book, though! And so grateful you’ll be patient with mine!

  3. Vicki,
    If it was easy, you’ve had been satisfied with your work at an earlier stage. But because it’s about learning, it’s really messy. Your passion will carry you through.

    I voiced my “what will I blog about the 89th TCRWP reunion” to a friend yesterday who said whatever you share will be perfect. But yet the words were a struggle so I decided to take Mo Willems advice, go experience, and then come back to writing.

    Thanks so much for sharing this. I’ve often wondered if others ever “doubt’ their work, path, or even writing! We’ll love what ever you write! ❤

    • Without even knowing it, Fran, I followed Mo Willem’s advice, too. I gave myself the first two weeks of September to step away and give myself time to think about what I really wanted to say and write (which, I confess, included the possibility of abandoning the book). And giving myself that time and space helped me rediscover what I wanted to say and gave me new energy – which is all to say that sometimes stepping away is the best thing to do to step forward. And as for doubting, David always tells me that it’s precisely the doubts that makes the work stronger. So doubt on, too!

  4. Thanks for, yet again, enlightening us on another hot topic – failure and grit. Kristi Mraz and Christine Hertz expressed similar thinking in their amazing book, A Mindset for Learning, when they discuss the mindset of persistence. Without additional reflection, or linking persistence to another mindset (empathy, flexibility, resilience, and optimism), we may find ourselves focused on unattainable or even unhealthy goals. As adults, we can discern the difference most of the time, but we need to raise this awareness with our young students. Focusing on passion projects, such as Genius Hour, or any other form of independent expression is one way to guide our students into discovering their own interests or passions. Because, you’re right – when our work is our calling, time and energy are limitless and abundant. Thanks again for inspiring us to think, reflect and write. PS – Thanks for your support on our study group. I’ll keep you posted as we move closer to the Jan/Feb dates. And, PPS – I invited Trevor Bryan to our district last year to share his work on The Art of Comprehension. So great to see his work included here.

    • I increasingly find it comforting but not surprising that many of us wind up at similar places—as in Kristi & Christine cautioning us, too, about disconnecting grit from other qualities that need to be fostered and nurtured too. Motivation is a complex thing, requiring a whole suite of dispositions and habits of mind. And we serve no one by pushing one without encouraging the others. And, yes, keep me posted on the study group!

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    • Thanks, as always, for including me in your wonderful weekly round-up! And so glad I followed one of your links to read Matt Renwick’s great piece on conversation & Sherry Turkle’s new book!

  6. Vicki, this post made me think of Ellin Keene’s book, To Understand. Ellin asserts that having a fervent desire to learn is one of the markers of understanding. I think modeling this for our students – this need to write, to read, to know, to understand – is a better use of classroom time than trying to make kids ‘gritty.’ When you are passionate about a topic, working through the struggle always pays off.

    • Thanks, Dana. And so glad it made you think of Ellin’s work! She’s done so much to push my thinking on what it truly means to understand. For me, though, it’s all about inviting curiosity and passion into our rooms, which also seems connected to giving kids choice, time and space to discover things to be passionate about – and having just read Ellin’s great essay in The Teacher You Want to Be on aesthetic experiences, making sure they have lots of those, too.

  7. Beautiful post, thank you Vicki. Life is just too short to spend it chasing after “shoulds”, plugging away at things that don’t make us happy. While certainly part of our role as educators is to push children just beyond their ZPD, and sometimes doing so brings discomfort, I do not believe that children should spend their childhoods slogging through work that makes them miserable in the name of building character or grit.

    • Alfie Kohn wrote a great piece on how we need to consider what we’re asking kids to persevere through and whether it’s truly worthy enough. ( If not, all we’re doing is turning kids into compliant work horses, which may serve the needs of a competitive global work force but doesn’t do much for individuals. And yes, life is much too short to spend it on drudgery – especially when we can meet the same goals by tapping in to kid’s passions and curiosity.

  8. Vicki, Have you read The Rise by Sarah Lewis? Her work also talks about the importance of passion, the near-win and letting go in growth mindset. We love how she discussing the difference between mastery and perfection. Thank you for sharing your journey and allowing all of us to learn with you.
    Clare and Tammy

    • No, I haven’t read it, but I did just add it to my amazon wishlist. My partner David also just finished a book called “Rising Strong” by Brene Brown that he’s urging me to read. And given how helpful it was to read Still Writing, I may need to get to both of these sooner rather than later. So thanks for the recommendation!

  9. Thank you for this brave and beautiful piece. Life presents opportunities. How we face each of them seems to be about our state of mind. Trevor’s intrinsic rewards/consequences speak to growing children in a positive unconditional manner. Perhaps we should be thinking about our own work and work toward our goals in this same manner. Your book will come. It’s just not ready quite yet. Hang in there. We’re a patient lot and will support and root for you like crazy!

    • Thanks for reminded me of that magic word “yet,” Julienne! And for reminding me that we need to give ourselves, as well are our kids, unconditional support. And it absolutely feels critical that we develop our own growth mindsets—not by narrowly focusing on grit but by tapping into our passions too.

  10. Thank you, Vicki, for sharing this struggle and your wise words about the important place that kind of inner drive occupies in our hearts. It’s probably not odd that a book about the messiness of complexity should be both messy and complex, but if anyone can put those important ideas into words and then sentences and then chapters, you can (‘though how anyone could cycle that bike all the way to the top of the hill is beyond my imagination.) All the best on the journey.

    • Thanks, Steve! Yes, it shouldn’t have been surprising that a book about complexity would be messy and complex to write. And struggling with it as I’ve been has also been a lesson in humility, which seems important, too. I have found, though, that it’s a little easier to work on if I’m also occasionally blogging, and that’s been an interesting thing to learn, too. And when it comes to those hills, there’s also the wonderful, immediate payback of getting to coast down the other side.

  11. I deliberately waited to comment until the comments were as rich and varied as you post! What I loved reading: courage/encouraging, YET, humility, passions vs. “shoulds,” and most of all, that grit can be two weeks off to think and not nose-to-grindstone 24/7.

    I’m struggling to find time to grow my new passions, since the big passion of my life — teaching — seems to want every waking moment from me.

    • How I love this, Mary Lee! And how I’m struggling, too, to figure out how to find time to feed old passions and develop new ones amid the work I do, which seems to want a lot out of me, too. It seems like I’m always searching for balance. The good news is that last year balanced seemed so beyond me that my one little word was breathe (which, is it possible I remember this, might have been yours, as well). I’m breathing more now but all that means it that I now have space to think about balance, which too often eludes me. Ah, but I’m trying to remember my new favorite saying: Practice makes progess, not perfect!

  12. Ah, Vicki, I did not deliberately wait to write my response to your elegantly crafted argument for perseverance …Alas.. I am being held hostage at the bottom of the pile of a common assessments (k-12) and the only thing that is keeping me going is persevering as I make correction after correction after correction. (Cue mantra:”Oh why, oh why did I ever start this project?”) No passion for the shackles of multiple choice and open-ended questions….treating as something gritty instead. All of which goes to say that I wish I was going to have something for my efforts that reflected my passion instead.
    Add faith to your creative juice formula…we all believe and will wait patiently for the book.

    • You’re absolutely right, Colette, that faith needs to be in the mix. I don’t really know where it comes from, but I do have faith that in the end, everything will okay—though not necessarily in the way I imagined it would be. And maybe there’s some as yet to be seen benefit in slogging through those assessments—yes? I can’t imagine you doing all that without thinking something about it that’s worth thinking. And thanks for being patient!

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