National Writing Project

Be Safe

By: Kathleen O'Shaughnessy
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 8, No. 1
Date: January-February 2003

Summary: In her talk at the NWP Annual Meeting, Kathleen O'Shaughnessy shares her experience of expanding her "safe" audience and increasing her productivity as a writer.


In Louisiana, we don't really have four seasons, only three. We have summer, we have winter, and in between them, we have hurricane season. When you've lived your whole life an hour's drive from the Gulf of Mexico, you tend to get complacent about hurricanes, but this year we were shaken out of our complacency by Hurricane Lili. Lili developed into a category four stormon a scale that only goes up to fiveand aimed itself straight at us. It was expected to make landfall on a Thursday, so that Wednesday my school decided to have class for half a day so that kids could get their belongings and some assignments because it was likely we would be out of school for a number of days. I told my students their homework was to "write up a storm" until we returned to school.

At noon, we put the kids on the busses, finished picking up and tying down all the things we didn't want flying through our windows, and got ready to go home and make the usual preparations there. But we were slow to get in our cars and leave. We stood around and talked about past storms, about the latest predictions for wind speed and storm surge, and where you could still find plywood. As each person detached themselves from the group and left, we sent them off with the same goodbye"Be safe." And they would answer, "Be safe."

Although that sounds like an imperative sentence, it wasn't meant that way. It wasn't the same as a parent's desperate "Be careful" called out to a teenager flying through the door with car keys in her hand. When we said "be safe" to each other, we were acknowledging our shared apprehension. We were really saying, "We're going to share, separately, a scary and potentially dangerous situation, and in all likelihood we won't see each other for several days. Here's hoping we're all back here laughing together when this is over. I'm a little scared, aren't you. I care about you." Be safeit's a deeply fond wish for someone; it felt good to say it to people and to have them say it to me.

The storm did hit us, though not as hard as predicted, and we were out of school for several days. When we did get back to campus, I still felt that wish echoing in my head. And when my kids came to class with the results of their "writing up a storm," I realized it's a wish I have for them too. They must be safe and feel safe if they're going to write real stuff instead of gobbledygook for a grade, if they're going to really be writers instead of just write on command. They must have a safe audience.

And then I realized that that's what I need too, to be a writer. I write a lot more than I used to, but still not nearly as much as I'd like to. I bet I'm not the only person in the room who feels that way. But I am writing more than I used to even though I'm just as busy as ever and writing is just as hard as ever because I've found a safe audience. Several in fact.

My first safe audience was one I just stumbled into through dumb luck. I didn't entirely understand what I was getting into when I participated in my first summer institute ten years ago. But, like all of you, I found a safe audience there, and that led me to make the commitment to myself to write more. But safe audiences don't often just appear like that, like pennies in the street, so if you want to write more, you have to be a bit more active in cultivating your safe audiences. Cultivating a safe audience, though, is like diving into icy cold water. You either have to want to swim pretty badly, or else someone has to push you.

My next safe audience was the result of a push. I applied for NWP's first Professional Writing Retreat in Santa Fe because my site's director urged me to do so. I was accepted and arrived in Santa Fe like lots of people arrive therecertain that my acceptance had been the result of a clerical error and feeling anything but safe. Then I discovered that I'd been put into a writing group and the other members were Gwen Williams, this really smart woman who was writing her dissertation, and Mary Ann Smith, co-director of the entire National Writing Project, whose book on portfolios was sitting on my desk at home. I was terrified. But of course, many of you know those two women, and so it won't surprise you to learn that they were absolutely a safe audience, and a kind and encouraging one.

So having survived that shove into the deep end of the pool, I decided to push myself into the cold water one more time and sent an article to Art Peterson. He turned out to be a safe audience also, and through Art and Amy Baumann, I expanded my safe audience to include readers of The Quarterly. And the larger my safe audience got, the more I wrote. But I still wasn't writing as much as I wanted to.

And then an article I'd written escaped the confines of my safe audiences and found its way to all sorts of people I didn't know anything about. The headmaster of my school ended up with a copy, though I never gave it to him. And he gave copies to our school's board of trustees and to his secretary and to an organization of independent schools. And the organization of independent schools reprinted the article on their website. And one of the board members left a copy on his kitchen counter where it was picked up and read by his wife, who happened to be the mother of one of my students, and she passed it on to several other moms. And the headmaster's secretary sent the article off to her sister, who's a teacher in California, and she passed it around among the teachers at her school. And the next thing I know I'm hearing from people all over the place who want to swap stories with me, and all of those scary audiencesmy employers, the parents of my students, total strangersturn out to be safe audiences.

So now I'm thinking maybe the main difference between scary audiences and safe audiences is just my perception of them, and that to cultivate safe audiences for myself, maybe I don't have to limit myself to people who know and like me. What I have to do is ignore that internal critic that wants me to wait until the water warms up before I dive in because the water never warms up, and the writing doesn't get done. "Be safe" doesn't have to be just a wish; it can be a decision. I still don't write as much as I'd like to, but that's the advice I give to myself, and to all those other people I meet who wish they were writing more than they do, and to you. Act as if you feel safe even if you don't; dive into the writing, and see what happens. Be safe.

About the Author Kathleen O'Shaughnessy is a co-director of the National Writing Project of Acadiana. She teaches sixth grade reading/writing workshop at Episcopal School of Acadiana in Cade, Louisania.


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