Composition and Decomposition

I recently wrote a speech to be delivered at a church retreat.  I started the first draft about ten days in advance. I had been assigned a topic and given an outline of main themes to be covered.  I spent several hours crafting the speech, even thinking at one point I was pleased with the way I seemed to have covered everything in the suggested outline.  Two problems still loomed the night before I was to give it. I didn’t really like it and I was supposed to have a few personal stories to illustrate certain points.

I had one story in mind, but somehow it did not fit the slot where the outline suggested I put it. I had tried all that afternoon to get the speech in finished form to no avail. The more I looked at the thing, the more it read like a dry outline.  I could picture myself ‘teaching’ this topic with a whiteboard.  That was not the intent of those who asked me to speak.  Finally, well after 9:00 p.m. I called a friend who had done a similar speech last year.  I was frustrated, angry even; I had not procrastinated; I’d put in the hours.  Why was this NOT working?     She was almost laughing as I vented, but also listening graciously.  Then she said,     “Just tell your story.”   I looked at the clock on my computer:  9:34 p.m.  Not only did I not want to start over at that hour of the night, but I also didn’t want to revisit the events of 2004 in the kind of detail I knew would be needed to tell that story.  I tried to argue with her but to no avail.  She just kept reassuring me if I told my story, the one that didn’t seem to ‘fit the slot’ on the outline, that somehow the themes I was supposed to cover would indeed be there.

The teacher of composition was now the student.  I didn’t want to revise or rewrite. I didn’t want to trust the process. Yet I knew she was right.   I went to the cabinet where I store old journals and pulled the ones that covered 2004.  I read the painful and frightening events of my life that year, and surprisingly, it was not as difficult as I thought. I found that with the distance of twelve years, I had become more compassionate toward my former self.  (Age does have a few advantages.)

About midnight, I finished writing the story. Just as my friend promised, the elements from the outline were indeed covered. The themes were there – and I wouldn’t need a whiteboard…  Just a story!   The next day, I walked into my AP Lang and Comp class and confessed to my students   “I had to start over last night on a piece I was writing. I did not want to do what I preach to you all the time - write, rewrite, and revise.” Though I encourage them to write what they know, I am a traditionalist when it comes to form.  I required them to learn essay structure before I allowed them play with variations of it.  “A frog won’t hop without a skeleton,” I say  “He’s just a blob of skin and flesh on the floor.  Underneath your beautiful phrases and choice diction, there must be a skeleton.“

The outline and the first two or three drafts are not wasted.  It’s a framework; it’s in you as a writer and it finds it way to the page in the final product, though it may look nothing like the first draft you wrote.  Hopefully there’s muscle and bone on that skeleton now, and life breathed into it. And when you speak or someone reads it – It hops! That is part of trusting the mysterious, creative process. 

I remembered the ashes on my head from the Wednesday prior. “From dust you came and to dust you shall return…”  The pattern is circular, not linear.  Fall decomposes and decays. Spring flowers and vegetables feed on the death of the compost bin. The new words come from the old ones. Writing, mirroring life itself, often has to come apart before it gets put back together. It has to die before it can live