National Writing Project

My Third Speech for NWP

By: Lynn Jacobs
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 8, No. 1
Date: January-February 2003

Summary: In her speech at the Annual Meeting, Lynn Jacobs admits she is her own favorite writer, and talks about the different kinds of writing she does...


My name is Lynn Jacobs. I teach English Language Development at Lindhurst High School, in Olivehurst, which is in a rural area of Northern California. Let me begin by confessing that I am my favorite writer. Well, not all the time, but I definitely like to read what I've written. Somebody famous once said, "One should always keep a journal—that way you'll always have something interesting to read on the train." I have followed that advice for the past thirty years. I used to dream of being a writer, as I filled volume after volume with my thoughts and ideas—it took me a while to realize that being a writer just means writing a lot. When thinking about what I would say today, I decided that the best way to tell you about myself as a writer would be to talk about the different kinds of writing I do.

First, there's the kind of writing that is obsessive—when I have somehow come away from home without a book to write in, and I write on napkins or on the back of flyers or in the margins of newspapers. My pen is anything I can find—a cheap Bic ballpoint will do—and I write about whatever it is that is trying to get out. Sometimes it is a list—of important things that I don't want to forget—projects, or shopping or just things I want to remember to think about. Other times I see some stranger whose life I have to invent right then and there, and I scramble to find pen and a scrap of paper. Sometimes this writing finds its way to a more permanent location—with Scotch tape. I never recopy anything. More often though, it gets lost in the bottom of my purse until I finally clean it out and read it again, on its way to the garbage with the gum wrappers. It seldom seems very important after having spent time in my purse.

Then there is the writing in my journal. I pick purses based on the size of my journal. This is my creative writing. The book has to be just right—smooth, hard finish paper that doesn't bleed ink through, preferably without lines, large enough that I don't run into the margins too soon, and with a spiral or other binding that allows it to open all the way and lie flat. The pen also has to be right. No scratching at all. I need a .5 or .7 mm pen with a very smooth tip. I draw in this journal, sometimes with colored pencils, and often tape little pictures, horoscopes, fortune cookie messages, pictures of people and places in it. Sometimes I do writing exercises, the kind I find in writing books by Natalie Goldberg or Lynn Nelson, that let me see what I am thinking.

Sometimes I write stories. I have a fantasy about being a novelist. I often begin novels. I write for a few pages and then lose interest as soon as I have to describe anything. I'm all about the people—I am quickly bored by writing description. Occasionally, however, a story that I really like comes from one of these writes. A couple of summers ago I attended a writing retreat at the Grand Canyon. What a rich writing experience that was. Sitting way out on a point of rock watching the sun come up and writing, then sharing it (or not) with my writing group. I began my favorite journal ever there, but the best part was writing a story in which I took the voice of my formerly teenage daughter. I did that one as an experiment to see if I could maintain the voice of another person throughout the entire story. I did, and with that story I began to understand how writing a novel works—I realized you have to carry a bunch of different people inside your head for the duration of the experience. And that was as far as that one went.

Then there is professional writing, which I do the most of these days. Sometimes this writing is based on classroom inquiry. It may be in the form of notes and journal entries about teaching and students, and eventually, with a great deal of perseverance, it takes on the form of an article. It took me a while to realize I have enough to say to write about my practice as a teacher. A year or so ago I wrote an article, which was based on a classroom inquiry project. Although I had collected thirty or forty pages of classroom notes and observations, I only wrote it because Tom Fox told me it was time to write something for publication. He seemed to think I'd been messing around with writing retreats and institutes long enough. So I did, and with Rochelle Ramay's tireless revision suggestions, I managed to finish and submit it. The English Journal was kind enough to publish it, which gave me great impetus to keep writing. Somehow, having had one thing published also gave me permission to call myself a writer.

The other kind of professional writing I do is that which arises from a need I see and want to communicate with other people. At the moment I am working on a problem that I see with my English Learners, for which I am trying to find a remedy. My students are all Hmong and Latino. In the past few years we have been receiving freshmen who speak English quite well, and know the rules of the culture, but don't read beyond the third or fourth grade level. Their writing is equally or even less competent. I am writing an article, which started as a way to see what I think about the subject. I began to do some research in the area of my concern, and the paper has grown into a plea of sorts to other teachers. I am continuing to do research for this article, as I write draft after draft of it. The great thing about this is that having had one article published, I have confidence that another will be as well, if I ever feel like it's done.

In closing, I could say that my life informs my writing, but the truth is that my writing informs my life.

About the Author Lynn Jacobs is a teacher-consultant with the Northern California Writing Project.


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