When I taught English, my students would come to me for help on their essays. More accurately they were seeking better grades.
They would stand by my desk or I’d stand by theirs and they would be worried. Or annoyed. Or both. “Read this out loud,” I would tell them. “This sentence here.”
“But I want my whole essay to improve.”
“I understand,” I’d say. “But first we need to take this one sentence at a time.”
Oh, the sighs! The eye rolls! The groans! This seemed like a lot of work.
Because it was.
Still, I asked them to listen while they read to me.
Sometimes their words fell like stones, the diction overwrought or imprecise. Other times the parts of their sentences were out of place. Unclear modification. Passive voice. Agreement issues with subjects and verbs or pronouns.
The weaknesses varied; what these kids had in common, however, was a sense of helplessness. They’d look at me and shrug.
“I know it sucks.” (They were right.)
“But I don’t know how else to say it. There IS no other way.” (They were wrong.)
These students had given away their power. They surrendered control insisting that once they had written something, that was THE END. Done and done. Forever.
This reaction was due in part to natural human laziness. I’d given them an assignment and they had completed it. Why would they rewrite a sentence or a paragraph or (perish the thought) an entire essay? They didn’t want to. I get that. I do.
But the larger issue, I believed then and still believe, was their false assumption that there was no other way to say it.
They felt trapped in a cage of their own words while, behind them, the door was open.
So we’d listen again to one single awkward sentence, and I’d ask them to explain to me in casual language what they meant.
Keep it simple. Uncomplicated. Just tell me what you’re trying to say.
My goal was to help them unravel the meaning behind their words so they might string them together more effectively.
“You’re in charge,” I would repeat. “Individual words have no power. You pick each one and stick them where you think they should belong. Then, if the sentence doesn’t work, pull the words apart and try again.”
In theory being told YOU ARE IN CONTROL should be empowering; instead, these students were frustrated. They didn’t want to think more (or in some cases less).
The same holds true in life: We throw up our hands and say, “It is what it is. I can’t do anything about it.”
We remain in cages of our own making.
(This is Bella. She walked into our puppy’s pen on her own and stayed there with the door wide open.)
Stuck in ruts, mired down by mud, we make irrational, destructive choices. Convinced there’s no other option, we let ourselves off the hook.
We say The floundering sentence has been written. I am helpless when it sinks instead of I wrote that floundering sentence. What can I change to make it float?
Of course some things (terrible things) are beyond our control.
A grim diagnosis. Job loss. Betrayal. Abandonment. The death of a loved one. This is not what I’m talking about.
I’m targeting issues we can fix if we do the hard work. One sentence at a time.
(Side note: Perfection is not the goal; sometimes a sentence ends in a preposition. I never gave anyone a bad grade over a preposition.)
What I’m suggesting is this:
Consider a challenge in your life, a cage that tempts you to stay put. Go ahead. Close your eyes. Think.
I know it sucks but…
Be gentle with yourself. Remember you’re not lazy. (Okay, maybe you are.) But you are also tired. Or brainwashed.
There is no other way, you think.
Now turn around.
Behind you is an open door.
What are your true intentions? What story do you wish to tell?
Unravel one sentence at a time, and you might improve the entire essay.
(If you need help editing your life, ask for it. There are teachers everywhere who want you to succeed.)
Erase. Rewrite. Delete. Repeat.
You’re in charge. You always were.
Reclaim your sentences until they sing your song.
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