Who’s the Asshole?

The Psychopathology of Free Writing
“Does right always start off right?”
Who’s the Asshole?Chapter:On Writing & Not

I n the tradition of Peter Elbow and Natalie Goldberg, I’m a big believer in free writing- for my students (have them do it all the time) and for myself (haven’t done it in years: a story for another day).

One of the first prompts I gave A was to write ten “I am [. . .]” Sentences.

A dutifully sat down at the table, dutifully held a pencil in his right hand, and dutifully stared at a blank sheet of paper. He’s a dutiful boy, for better and worse, a characteristic that certainly made this crazy home school idea seem more plausible.

I encouraged A, as I do my college students, not to think, just to write.

Ten minutes up, the paper remained blank. He was frustrated, upset, a little bit angry.

Finally, laboriously, painfully, tearfully, he reached Number 8.

“That’s all I can do,” he said.

“It doesn’t have to be good; it just has to be something,” I said. “I’m wearing a shirt. I’m an asshole. Anything.”

He wrote “#9 I’m wearing a shirt” and “#10 I’m an asshole,” and slapped the paper down on the table.

Next- he wasn’t happy to hear that there was a next- I asked him to choose the one of the ten that seemed most exciting, most open, most possible, and to write about it.

He chose asshole. I thought he’d made a good choice.

I can’t remember what he wrote but he wrote something and that’s what mattered.

I was pleased with all this.

I’d known going in that free writing, that getting A to open up, to be less obsessed with getting things right was going to be a challenge.

What is right? Whose right? Does right always start off right?

Being comfortable with the possibility and reality of wrongness seems important to me, though, full disclosure, I still struggle to embrace such a mindset.

This was hard but necessary. It felt good. It felt like progress. It felt like an achievement. It felt like a first step in the right (lol) direction.

I shared the experience with K that evening over Manhattans.

K was less than congratulatory. She didn’t smile or laugh.

She said, “I think he thinks you’re the asshole.”

I tried to explain why I saw all this as a success, as necessary, as important. Did K groove to my explanation? Can’t say, jury’s out.

How’s the free writing going? Great! We do it everyday; if I forget, A reminds me.

Which is not to say that we aren’t all assholes sometimes.

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