Write What You Know
I am standing in front of another writing class From my mouth, the mouth of all English teachers, comes, “Write what you know,” and the carefully tied fly whips itself out onto the surface of the classroom and lies there, waiting for a nibble or a strike. My students, fresh from fields and country roads and long hours alone on the prairies, stare back like ancient trout, converged at this bend in the river. No one moves a pencil; no one rises to even tap the bait. Silence is broken by the sound of the General Electric clock over my head marking the flow of time and water and life.
Whoever put a 15 inch clock on the wall above and behind the teacher knew something about sadism. Students mark their breathing in second hand sweeps, while I wait for that first hand to rise like a fish, foolishly deciding to catch one last fly for the evening…my bait, tied carefully to invisible nylon leader guaranteed to withstand the assault of five pound monster brown trout. Patiently I stand by the edge of the stream, my feet just barely touching the water line.
“Mr. Bouchard? What if I don’t have anything to write about?” a querulous voice trembles. Shimmers of water-light ripple through the pond-room. I see the other trout-children move ever so slightly, turning in the water thick air toward the question-tap.
“Patience,” I think…and clear my throat. “Good question,” I say. “What do you know that you would want to write about? What stories do you have to tell that others would like to hear?” I let the current move the fly a little deeper over the waiting trout.
And there I miss the first strike of the day.
“Nothing. I got nothing,” grumbles Charlie. “I don’t go nowhere. I don’t do nuthin’ but work and stay at home.”
“Yah. Pretty much says it all right there,” chimes in his best friend Tad. The other fish start to turn away from the prompt/bait. I can see they are thinking of going into deeper water.
Quickly changing tactics, I turn and grab a broken piece of chalk…not much, but enough. I scratch out two words: ‘episodic memory.’ Turning to the class, I say quickly, “What do you remember about 9/11? Take a minute and think about 9/11. Where were you? What were you doing? Who was with you? What time of day was it? What did you feel?”
The class is interested in the bait change up. I can see their trout bodies, speckled with brown dots, turning toward my new presentation. Gills are fanning in and out a little quicker than before.
A hand shoots up. Mary says, “I was on my way to school, and the bus driver yelled at us all to be quiet because something was going on with World Trade Center.” A couple of her friends nod their heads, eyes looking up and back, into the past. Images were coming into focus.
Jose blurts out, “My mom was on the way to New York that morning. She was waiting at the airport. We were all worried about her.”
Now we’re getting somewhere, I tell myself. “So, Jose, can you remember exactly what you were doing when you first found out about the planes hitting the building? Where were you? What were you doing?”
“I had just eaten…Cheerios…yeah, it was Cheerios!” he says. “I was making sure my books were in my backpack, and the news came on over the Morning Show. I remember I stopped and just stood there like I was frozen. It was a couple of hours before we knew she was okay, but her plane was grounded so she couldn’t go to New York.”
The rest of the class murmurs. The beautiful fish begin to move as one toward the bait.
I nudge. “What did you see? What did you hear? What did you feel? What did you smell? Who was there with you? Take a minute and write that down.”
Pencils scratch on cheap paper. The sound of the clock hum recedes. Time slows as currents of thought push the humming motor down. The stream slows and the water surface becomes glassy.
Two minutes pass. No one says anything.
I break the silence. “This is episodic memory. When huge events take place in our lives…events that mean something very important to us, or that are swift and exciting, sometimes too wonderful or too terrible to understand or to survive…at that instant…those events are stored in our minds almost like living, high definition videos. We can remember these episodes with all five senses. We remember what we were doing, what we were eating, who was with us, where we were, sights, sounds, smells, feelings…they’re all there in our episodic memories.”
I have their attention. The hook is set. Some pencils even scratch “episodic memory” on paper. I push on.
“We all have collective episodic memory. 9/11 is a good example. You all have some collective memory of that day when terrorists flew two airplanes into the twin towers in New York City.”
I take a breath. “Now comes the reason for my teaching you about episodic memory. We all have personal events stored in episodic memory as well. Each of us has his or her personal memories, forever burned into the hard drives of our minds. When we pull up these memories, they are there in true color, full sound, and clear vision. We can see, taste, touch, hear and smell those memories clearly. That’s what I mean when I say, ‘write what you know.’
It’s illegal to fly fish with multiple baits on one line in Montana, not that I am coordinated enough to keep 15 grey wolf flies separate and in the air on the end of 30 feet of fly line anyway. In my mind, I imagine those flies stinging the water and 15 fish leaping to snag them. The class is moving mentally toward episodic events.
The fly fisherman lives for that leaping catch, when the world explodes with the splashing surge of trout beauty and fierce battle. The teacher lives and breathes the exhalations of “AHA!” as students capture concepts and come to life.
Fifteen memories, brilliant as shattering crystal catching sunlight, explode in fifteen minds…and then the trouble comes. I have been here before and move quickly to head off a possible flight to deep waters.
“Class! I need you to hold your thoughts for just a minute.”
“Some of us in this room just experienced memories of wonderful events: winning shots at ball games, good news of brothers or sisters coming home from war, first kisses … and some of us are experiencing terrible events, reliving them over right here in this room. I know that happens. It happens to me. The problem is…not all episodic memories should be shared with everyone.”
The class is silent. A couple of eyes are red and I can see where tears are beginning to form. Someone is recalling a fumbled tackle and the agony of sounding jeers. Another is re-living the scratchy beard and sour breath of a father as he crosses all lines of decency and honor with a child. I can almost hear skidding tires and feel exploding airbags as three minds simultaneously re-experience crashes…. The silent sounds of slaps and screams, of joyous and sarcastic laughter, of tearful farewells and exuberant reunions fill the air, bubbles releasing in the moving water of the classroom.
And then, the bell rings. “Take your ideas with you and write about what you know! I’ll see you Wednesday,” I yell.
Fifty minutes. The fishing is good. I reel in the fly, check the hook, and wait for next fish to come downstream.
Writing Exercise I use with my composition students. You might like to try this....