How Writing Shapes Our Thoughts

I wrote five letters of recommendation for students in the wake of Christmas. Five good students. Five iterations on a form. Five attempts to capture the standout. Five people to reflect upon.

I’m not sure I’ve met a teacher who enjoys writing recommendation letters, although perhaps I just assume. We smile graciously when asked. “I would be happy to.” And I think we are happy, to have been chosen, to be able to do something practical and needed, but then the letters line up before us in a dreadful litany–I recommend; I strongly recommend; I recommend without reservation.

A morning walk with Gordi, my parents’ dog.

In fact, the letters went quickly, without fuss. I sifted memories. I consulted spreadsheets of accumulated marks. These are good students, passionate, compassionate, competent each one of them. There was no dearth of things to say.

But partway through perhaps my second letter, I noticed something unexpected in me. It was something I’d experienced before, most likely do with every letter that I write each year, although I’d never pinned it down before: when I began, the mental machinery of cataloguing traits and their examples slow clanking into life, something shifted in my thought. My own feelings about each student seemed to change. When I had started the letter, I had said, “They’re a great student. I’m glad I get to write for them.” And when the shift rose up in me, I said instead, “How ever could I not write it. It’s an honor to. They really are impressive human beings.”

I suppose it is not so strange, to persuade oneself through a sustained and focused gaze. I tell my students often enough, you’ll really understand the topic when you write the essay. Writing teaches you, makes you think more deeply. It does so for me too, thoughtful and aware as I try to be from moment to moment.

Among the greatest tools I know to combat internal doubt, a rear-up of anxiety or depression, is just a journal and a pen. There written out, the truth feels clearer than its tangle in the brain. By no means a panacea, but undoubtedly a help.

My dad and Gordi

The good of writing, I think, is much more than the sharing of our minds with others. It is the discovering of them for ourselves. It’s a kind of talking ourselves into things, or else a wording our way through.

Of course I’m glad I wrote those letters. It is an honor, long as they might take, formulaic as they might sometimes feel, although I think I’ve written good ones. They are personal. They are thought out. They are drafted and revised. They are the kind of letters I hope someone would write for my child or myself. I think that’s good enough.

It’s near the end of break. I spent a glorious Christmas with family in Wisconsin. On Tuesday, we’ll fly back. Another term approaches, but one in which the light will be returning, and the schoolwork perhaps easing for a while.

Best wishes to you all. With love,

Merry Christmas, Gordi!

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