National Writing Project

Writing Myself Awake

By: David Grosskopf
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2
Date: 2004

Summary: How does one convince a sixteen-year-old that writing matters? She'll need writing to to succeed in college and get the job she wants. These reasons provide a rationale that David Grosskopf believes sidesteps the main point: one needs to write in order to live life well. By taking students on his personal writer’s journey, he convinces his students that the beginning and end of writing extends beyond creating an error-free employment resume.


I teach a high school philosophy and literature class in which I both proclaim the main goal to be figuring out what it means to live life well and question what it takes to make this happen. The question usually brings a revelation. Two important things happen when I ask it. First, although teenagers often assume they will be free and living the good life as soon as they leave school and get away from their parents, they acknowledge that most adults, though free in exactly this way, live without enthusiasm or joy. Second, by asking the question, I find out that students feel a rich life is nevertheless possible.

But it's not merely a question I ask because it's a good question. I ask it because it feeds me personally and because it allows me, too, to think I'm closer to an answer.

One of the ways in which I phrase "living life well" for students is living poetically, or living a poetic life. I don't mean that people have to write poetry to live a good life. But there is something invigorating in the poetic acts of sensing the structure of things and gathering the details of our day—however ordinary or disconnected—into something meaningful, beautiful, or terrible; there is something enlivening about taking notice and infusing such details with our appreciation and wonder. We don't have to be poets to have a poetic life, but I think there is a link between writing and the wide-awake consciousness I have always sought in myself, between composing a poem and composing a life. The use of the word poetic is not simply a metaphor.

In high school, I wrote all the time. I carried notebooks everywhere. If I'd get an idea, I'd write it down and save it for later. If I read a quote I liked, that went down too. If I found a place I liked, I'd sit straight down, fill myself with it, and write. I felt I was a collector, accruing knowledge, wit, and possibility, and this gave me an exhilarating sense of power and connectedness. Perhaps because fiction can take one to any setting and any subject, or maybe because writing allows anything encountered to be made into meaning, everything felt possible. I felt alive, and I remember saying: "So this is what it feels like." And I remember this because I wrote it, charging it with the additional intensity of writerly consciousness.

This is a consciousness I hoped to cultivate in students when I became a teacher. For this reason, I spoke to them about vitality and the need to pursue and protect it. I spoke at other times about the power of writing routinely, and how, even when you're not physically writing, you're observing, or feeling yourself feel, which leads not only to art but artistic existence.

Somewhere along the way, however, I lost this consciousness and the vitality I was describing to my students. And although I had not been writing for some time, I continued to preach about the need for passionate living and a habit of writing as though these were separate things; I preached, therefore, without doing or having either. This is why, when I began to tell my students about a camping trip I took a few years back, it turned out to be a perfect example of what I was missing.

I had been teaching for two years, and already I was worried about what Virginia Woolf in Moments of Being called the "kind of nondescript cotton wool" of life "not lived consciously" (1978, 81). Feeling numb and overwhelmed, I decided to shut myself in as isolated a place as I could find. It was February in the middle of the week, and when I hiked into Third Beach near LaPush, Washington, I didn't see another soul for miles. I was as alone as I could want to be. I didn't bring any books, music, or even a pen. The idea was to be myself with myself without any possibility of escape, and I would stay at least three lonely nights to do it.

After four days surrounded on all sides by the jagged rocks and the stormy rushing forward and back of an entire ocean—absolute beauty and nothing else—I felt myself reaching a corner. I felt my mind beginning to clear. Images and ideas started to accompany the nonstop chatter and "to-do" lists in my brain, and I had the vaguest sense of attentiveness within reach. But even as this happened—as the wool began to clear on my requisite fourth day—I did not fully appreciate what I was experiencing, and I left. My time was up, and I took off. Immediately. I rushed back to my life and job. I didn't stop to look at the ocean one last time. I didn't breathe in the rare, pulsing silence. I just packed my gear and hustled back to the car and darted away in a panic of boredom

Initially I had been telling students this story as an example of solitude and the freshness of perspective we must sometimes force on ourselves, and how such freshness is hard to get—and not just for lack of time. It was an honest account by an adult who preferred distraction to the toil of overcoming it. Although I think the story is still important, I began to suspect the challenges of solitude were only a part of the answer for which I was looking.

Looking back now, I believe that something else was going on: I was beginning to write again. I was courting sensitivities and my imagination too. I was starting to hear myself think. But I didn't allow myself to go far: I wasn't yet giving myself the means to build upon thoughts as one can on a page, or to safely abandon ideas for their return later, or to vibrate from feelings reshaped through the letters of words. What I didn't understand on this trip or even years later is that what I was missing was, plainly, writing. When I tried to revive without it, I failed; when I tried to teach writing and passion as separate pursuits, I missed because I had forgotten that in the moments I have felt most alive, I have been writing.

Today, I am just as busy as I was that year. Clearly, as a father now, I am busy with more, and much is still overwhelming. But I have felt myself waking recently, and I haven't needed to flee distraction or abandon civilization. The difference is that, because of the National Writing Project—which I joined last year—I have been writing each day. I start each and every morning with forty-five minutes of writing. And an awakening is starting to happen.

I can say this now: It is writing that has led me to feel most alive. This is the part that students never heard me tell because I misunderstood the secret for so long. It's not merely the production of writing—even good writing, and the satisfaction this brings—that has powered my sense of vitality; it is the act of writing itself. And perhaps this is the detail that has been so long elusive: In the course of the writing project summer institute, I began my daily forty-five minutes of writing with assurance. I threw down a decent poem on the first day, a vignette the next, and another poem the day after that. I saw our forty-five minutes as a great and rare opportunity and squeezed what I could out of the time.

But then, something else started happening. Sometimes during that forty-five minutes, I would start listing ideas instead. And sometimes, I'd hit something that I needed to pick up again during lunch. And then, sometimes, I was having ideas at odd moments—during a colleague's presentation, during dinner, on a bike ride home. I started moving into material that took a little longer. There was no way I was finishing in forty-five minutes. And then—whether in the presence of weekend guests or with children scattered all over the house (each in a various stage of disaster)—I was picking up my notebook at every chance. And, now, here I am in the middle of three incomplete writing projects—two essays and a short story—and I want to get back to them all as soon as I can. New ideas are hitting me four or five times a day; images and phrases are writing in my head even more often than that. It's 5:30 in the morning now, and I'm writing!

I was producing writing from the first of this awakening. But I am now feeling as well the delight of urgency—I've got to get this down—the bounty of inventiveness, and a heightened sense of possibility in my every day. I was already productive. But, now, grown from the anticipation of writing routinely and the faith that I will have time to do this, I am also arriving again, after so long, at a writerly consciousness.

This consciousness was perhaps within reach on the camping trip. But without writing, by which I could slow and examine and also amplify sensitivities and thoughts, I fell short of discovering it. For the same reason, bursts of writing at other times in my life went unreplenished. But now, as I commit to a ritualized solitude of writing, I begin to understand how the writing I do and the vitality I seek trade on one another.

I now have something new to tell students. I will return again to the question, which seems to remain all important: What does it mean to live life well? I know there is a purposefulness to asking the question, and I know the kind of writing that actually experiences the answer as it goes down. Writing is, for a moment at least, manufacturing this good life as it is lived. But I already knew that. What I might also be able to tell them now, as we study Woolf and Henry David Thoreau, is that over the summer this year, I began to live the poetic life. Here's what I did to do it: every week, almost every day, I made the time to write. And if you try it yourself, even if you're a student about to leave home for the first time, or a worker jammed down by memo wars, or a parent dealing with kids who yell all at the same time, you too may find that you can write yourself awake.


Woolf, V. 1978. "A Sketch of the Past." Moments of Being. London: Triad/Granada.

About the Author David Grosskopf is a teacher-consultant with the Puget Sound Writing Project, Washington. He teaches English at Roosevelt High School in Seattle.

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