National Writing Project

Why I Write: Portrait of a Bellicose Writer Hero

Publication: Edutopia
Date: November 10, 2011

Summary: Todd Finley, co-director and technology liaison for the Tar River Writing Project, shares how writing got him through a near-death experience.


A photo of me that my wife took during a 1999 Hawai'i vacation shows a swollen head with bruised eyes and skin abraded bright pink, all suspended above a Miami J neck immobilizer. I'm squinting with furious concentration at my laptop. Me, as writer hero.

A week earlier, I was playing with my first boogie board in early breaking waves off Hapuna beach when, under a blinding sky, the surf changed. I watched from a long distance out as lifeguards posted "Dangerous Surf" flags. As I studied the water for an exit, twenty waves, each one bigger than the one before, rolled under me and formed into collapsing towers of foam and mist. Fearing that the conditions might grow more violent, I propelled forward with a kick, and launched myself over a rotating barrel of energy, where I could see nine feet of air between my face and land. My forehead collided with hard sand. Then the entire Pacific Ocean dropped.

When I crawled to safety, my neck could not bear weight. I'd fractured my first vertebrae and was concussed enough to suggest that the heli-vac flight paramedics retrieve an extra gurney to—you know—transport both me and my manhood.

I just wanted someone to prop me up, open my childproof bottle of oxy, and leave me alone so I could write.

For a week, I was bed-bound with an outstanding headache, too addled to watch TV and too weak to hold a paperback. On New Years Day, I stared at the ceiling and cried with frustration that I couldn't write. For the few minutes a day that I could sit up, I didn't want to be wheeled out to view the sun setting behind anchored cruise ships or watch TV or even talk to my family. I just wanted someone to prop me up, open my childproof bottle of oxy, and leave me alone so I could write. That's when my wife, Randi, took the photo.

Here's my theory. The injury knocked me back to the psychosocial space usually occupied by 6- to 12-year-olds, what Erikson called Competence, where I desperately wanted to write myself into feeling okay.

Years later, discussing the photo she had taken of me after the accident, Randi informed me that during my short writing sessions, the laptop screen never had any words on it. "You weren't actually doing anything."

Not quite. I was gutting through the hard part of writing, trying to be a writer.

This is why I write, to relieve the feeling that I have the wrong brain in the wrong world. Portrait of a bellicose writer hero.

About the Author

Todd Blake Finley, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor of English Education at East Carolina University in C&I. He is a co-director and tech liaison for the Tar River Writing Project. He specializes in tech/literacy and has taught elementary and eighth to twelfth grade English.

Reprinted with permission from Edutopia .

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