National Writing Project

The Reflections of a Nonwriter

By: Cheryl Sawyer
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 8, No. 2
Date: March-April 2003

Summary: During the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, teacher and self-admitted nonwriter Cheryl Sawyer poured out her feelings in a poem and emailed it to her mother. The unlikely story of the poem's subsequent journey to more than 800 websites and the private memorial service of the U.S. Senate is a reflection on the power of the written word.


Someone told me last week that I was a gifted poet and an incredible writer. "Well," I thought to myself, "That's a crock. I'm not a poet: William Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Elton John—now they are gifted poets. I'm not even a writer: Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, Maya Angelou—they are incredible writers."

I'm definitely not a writer. The mental vision I get when I'm told to "write" accesses tormented memories from my educational past. In fifth grade, we were assigned to "write a 300-word essay" analyzing the Gettysburg Address, as if I could insightfully elaborate on Lincoln's painful speech to our country. I still break out in a rash when someone suggests that I write an "essay."

With poetry, it's the same. In tenth grade, we spent hours placing accent marks on the appropriate syllables so that we could differentiate iambic pentameter from the other metrics of poetry. Dissected, regulated poetry and the admonishment to "write a sonnet by Tuesday" gave me migraines.

Of course, as an English major in college, I wrote the inevitable series of five-paragraph themes at the rate of one per week. I stalwartly described, narrated, persuaded, compared/contrasted, and explained according to the traditional writing recipe of an introductory, three supporting, and one concluding paragraph. Themes gave me ulcers.

Now I'm entrenched in a publish-or-perish profession that mandates that I write and cite according to the most recent edition of the APA manual. Ick. There are not enough nonprescriptive pain relievers to alleviate that misery. Writers and poets obviously must endure and perhaps even enjoy the torture of structured writing. I most certainly do not want to be a writer.

But, that said, I've always used writing as a tool. As a shy kid who said little, writing was the main highway for my thoughts, my emotions, my communications with myself, my friends, and my God. I sneaked notes to other kids in class. I wrote letters to my grandma. I poured out my love in writing to my boyfriend who lived 100 miles away. I have always been highly opinionated and used the power of the pen to chastise jerks, commend the mighty, and pontificate my beliefs. The written word has always been an avenue for my personal agenda. I have always maintained a journal, mostly so that I would not inflict my beliefs publicly upon the world, thereby embarrassing my loved ones. Inscribed in my journal are thoughts regarding my inability to be an adequate parent, my hopes and dreams to save the world, and my frustrations with the obstacles preventing me from running my life the way I see fit. Sometimes I use a flashing red pen; other times, I cannot find words so I draw. Sometimes I even write in circles rather than on the lines. In my journal, I am free of the chains and constraints of rhyming couplets or persuading themes that must follow APA notation. I do not use appropriate sentence structure or writing recipes. I misspell, use contractions, and pour out my pain and joy in a most unprofessional, inappropriately documented manner. It is my haven where I can be me, and I share it with no one.

On September 11, 2001, our world changed drastically within seconds. As a counselor, educator, and patriot, I have an obligation to my conscience and my world to actively help in time of need. However, on that day, I was grounded to the couch awaiting surgery. I could not help. I was devastated; not only was our world in acute pain, but I was failing my fellow man by lying on my backside watching television during this crisis. I cried, whined, commented, complained, and prayed for three days following the disaster. Finally, my husband of 26 years said, "Shut up," and handed me my journal. So I wrote. Raw emotion poured out in poetic format. Upon impulse, I emailed what I had written to my mother, looking for sympathy and support for my misery. The note I attached to her read "I am completely useless and can do nothing to help, so I wrote this poem."

Mom forwarded it on to her friends, who sent it to their friends, who sent it to their friends, and so on and so on. They read my personal journal entry that was not supposed to go anywhere. The recipients wrote back. They said, "We need this. We feel this, too. You found the words for us." They wrote to me about their need to connect, their rage, their pain, and their fears. They sent me poetry, essays, songs, and letters. Their gut-wrenching, intensely personal feelings were shared with me, a faceless stranger, as if I were a friend they had known since childhood. Nearly all the email messages were moving reflections of both the pain and the hope of humanity. They tracked my email address to both home and the university, and I received thousands of messages.

A second wave of letters and emails flooded me with requests to share the poem through various mediums. They asked permission to include the poem on their websites, in their newsletters, in memorials for victims, veterans, and survivors. They added art, music, chanting, narration, and strength to my thoughts. They shared their work with others who shared the poem even more.

The national and international use of this poem has escalated to global proportions. Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum created a memorial exhibit in New York City entitled "Hope: Humanity and Heroism" and they wove the poem into the memorial's slide show, illustrating the lines of the poem with photos of heroism. Many major international corporations shared the poem with their employees as part of conferences or weekly addresses. Peter Jennings commented on it during ABC's daylong September 11-remembrance broadcast. Newsweek interviewed me for the "inside" story; Fox News used the poem when they created a web-based memorial; and Chicken Soup for the Soul of America printed it on page 230. It is on more than 800 websites and at least three different companies have set it to music and turned it into a CD. I received hundreds of emails again this past September from Americans who heard the poem in memorial services all over the country. As part of one September 11 memorial service, the pastor of Ebaneezer Baptist Church (Dr. Martin Luther King's church) read pieces from the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, and the poem. My journal entry was read in the same church that has served as the birthplace of the modern civil rights movement. Oh my.

Senator Max Cleland (Georgia) phoned me one morning to tell me that the U.S. Senate chaplain read my journal entry as part of the Senate's private memorial services on September11, 2002. Senator Cleland also used the piece in a public service television ad promoting the strength of American character and a celebration of our diversity. He emphasized to me that my words will go down in history and that this poem has made a difference in our world. He said my words made a difference. My words. Cleland has dedicated his entire life to our country. He sacrificed two legs and an arm to our country during the Vietnam War and he was thanking me for my words. I was at the grocery store when the call came in; I sat down on the kiddie carousel outside the store and cried.

I don't know what to think about all of this. I have tried to handle it appropriately: I have replied to everyone who wrote to me, struggling with what to say to them because what they wrote me was intensely personal. I could only send them the words that reflect my sincere, personal emotions, thoughts, and feelings. I am shocked, astounded, flabbergasted, overwhelmed at the response to this poem. Proud that I have "written" a historical piece of poetry? Oh, but no. I can't write poetry. You see, I'm not a writer. I did not set those words down on paper for attention, fame, money, or praise. I just sent my mother a passage from my journal; words I needed to release from my heart; words that were organized from beyond any power of my training and passed on to others through avenues beyond my control. People ask me, "How did you write this? Will you write another for us?" I can't plan what to write next. I can't come up with a poetic response. I freeze, panic, and say "I can't; I'm not a writer."

Slowly throughout this past year, the impact of my passage has gained momentum, and I am stunned by the overwhelming fear that maybe I am a writer. Perhaps my perception of what a "writer" is has been grossly distorted. I do use the written language as a tool, as an avenue for thought, emotion, and creativity. Using the tool of writing is to me an integral, inseparable part of my being. It is the epitome of emotional release, right up there with the primal scream and groans of agony and ecstasy. Maybe this is what being a writer is all about.

If, in fact, I am a writer, I've got to let kids who are still in school, dreading the much-hated writing assignment, know that keeping a journal, even if it is just for yourself, makes you a writer. That learning all those rules helps to develop the tool of writing, but those writing rules can be broken. Perhaps what a person ultimately does with writing is communicate, and that is as natural as breathing and sleeping. The essence of the written word is simply the release of human thought and emotion. So, if I might be so bold as to beg . . . teachers, parents, writers, friends, please tell the children that what goes into their journals becomes a part of their own history and has purpose and meaning. Stress to them that no matter what the format, it is absolutely essential that they explore and experiment with the written word. Tell them that they can relish or massacre the use of language within the safety and privacy of their own journals. Ask them if perhaps, sometime, maybe if only in a moment of weakness, they will share their journals with their mothers or teachers or friends who will share them with others. Then they, too, will become writers whose words may go down in history. However, they will have to get up their nerve to share, as I share with you.


By Cheryl Sawyer

As the soot and dirt and ash rained down,
We became one color.
As we carried each other down the stairs of the burning building
We became one class.
As we lit candles of waiting and hope
We became one generation.
As the firefighters and police officers fought their way into the inferno
We became one gender.
As we fell to our knees in prayer for strength,
We became one faith.
As we whispered or shouted words of encouragement,
We spoke one language.
As we gave our blood in lines a mile long,
We became one body.
As we mourned together the great loss
We became one family.
As we cried our tears of grief
We became one soul.
As we retold with pride of the sacrifice of heroes
We became one people.
We are
One color
One class
One generation
One gender
One faith
One language
One body
One family
One soul
One people
We are The Power of One.
We are United.
We are America.

About the Author Cheryl Sawyer is professor of school counseling at the University of Houston, Clear Lake. She is co-director of the Greater Houston Area Writing Project, Texas.



Remembering September 11
NWP articles and additional online resources about September 11, including links to children's writing.

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