A Writing Exercise

January 19, 2012 § 1 Comment

By Jacqueline Austin

Staff Sgt. Stacy L. Pearsall, USAF (Public Domain, via Stryker Brigade http://wn.com/Stryker_Brigade)

The day our troops went into Iraq, I was teaching a PEN writing seminar at my local high school.

I ran into the classroom, flicked the lights on and off rapidly, and then sternly told the kids, “You’ve been drafted.  You have 30 seconds to get ready.  Write a letter to the person you love best.   Tell them goodbye.  You have five minutes.”

They glanced at each other.  One guy raised his hand.

“No questions.  Write your letter.  You can put it in the form of a poem, if you like.  You have four and a half minutes.”

The room went dead silent, except for the sound of pens scratching furiously.

The lights went off, then on.  As I walked around the room, hands thrust letters into the aisle.  An aggressive hand.  A hand which was shaking, the offered letter rattling slightly.

Training was described.  We skipped forward through the training.  They were now on their voyage, some on a plane, others on a boat.

The lights again, on and off, describing the voyage.

“Your boat, your plane, has landed.  You are now in a foreign land, on your first mission.  You’ve landed.

“Now you’ve accidentally been separated from your unit.  Gun in hand, at the ready, you are crawling through foliage, towards the enemy.  Trees and brush are whipping your face.  Dust is choking you.  And suddenly a foreign kid, gun in hand, leaps out at you.  He, she, is shouting at you in this language you don’t understand. The enemy and you are staring into each other’s eyes.  You are talking to each other.  Listen to what he or she is saying.”

And then they were writing in the foreign language–whether they understood it or not.  Writing so fast and so hard, one kid’s pen pushed through the paper.

The half hour of questions and answers which followed, comprised the best discussion I’d heard, or would ever hear, about American military policy.

We compiled the work into an anthology, and published it for the school, PEN and the families and friends of everyone in the class.  The poems and letters were startling in their perceptions, insights and form.

Truly it doesn’t matter whether a child has been watching TV 24/7 for his or her entire life.  Previous experience is irrelevant.

What matters is to fully imagine the moment of engagement with another human being, on the opposite side, in the context of the world you share with that other human being–the time, the place, why each of you is there.  To understand what he or she is saying, even if we don’t know their language, and don’t know who they are.

Copyright 2012 by Jacqueline Austin.  Distributed on the Yale Listserv, January 2012, in a slightly different form.  All rights reserved.


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§ One Response to A Writing Exercise

  • Chris Danes says:

    Wow. Scared the crap (see previous listing) out of me. And made me cry. I LOVED that you fully engaged a classroom of kids from moment one! And me. Years later. Powerful.

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