Empowered Purpose: How My Writing Students Inspired Me
Guest Post by Ann Campanella
Before my daughter was born I devoted lots of time to writing. I was working on finishing a memoir that I’d been working on since 1993 about my desire to become a mom during a time when I struggled through multiple miscarriages and was losing my own mother to Alzheimer’s. The book was deeply important to me. I wanted to comfort others who were living through similar losses. The memoir had gone through dozens of revisions and had even been accepted by a high-profile New York agent. Despite this, the book didn’t feel quite finished.
After Sydney was born, I continued working on my memoir, hoping to complete it. But between caring for my young daughter and my elderly mother, I had limited energy. Working on the book was all-consuming, and because it was hard to hold the entire story in my head and still be engaged as a mother, I’d get frustrated and discouraged. Eventually, I put it away because I feared my writing was getting in the way of my being a good mom.
As Sydney grew older she began to develop her own love of writing. Two and a half years ago, I had the opportunity to teach a homeschool writing class to my daughter and her friend Lauren-Kate. Sydney’s friend’s mother and I agreed that the class was more than just a writing class. Both girls had had best friends recently move away and they needed each other’s support.
As a Davidson College English major, former magazine and newspaper editor and a lover of words, teaching writing was a natural fit. But I never dreamed of how both the girls and I would grow through this experience.
When we started the class, Sydney and Lauren-Kate were in the fourth grade. I had no concrete expectations other than the hope that their friendship would grow and it seemed like a fun way to teach them how to write paragraphs and practice grammar skills. I followed the curriculum Learning to Write the Novel Way.
As the girls began writing their stories, I copied the format of my adult writing groups for our critique sessions. The girls would read a chapter, one at a time, and we’d go around the circle offering comments. I made it clear that it was important that they encourage each other, sharing what they liked about their friend’s writing. The process was stimulating both for the girls and for me.
The girls took their work seriously. Even though their writing styles were very different – Sydney was working on a mystery and her wholesome fictional family was realistic while Lauren Kate was writing a fantasy adventure with zany characters set in outer space – they were both totally immersed in the lives of their characters and each other’s books. It reminded me of how my writing groups had inspired me.
By January, both girls completed their first drafts. I was thrilled for them as they danced their funny, exuberant dance to celebrate the completion of this milestone. But I knew they had a lot of work ahead of them.
The girls wanted their books to be published. But, as a former magazine and newspaper editor, I knew the standards for publication were high, and I wasn’t sure they’d have the perseverance to reach that goal.
Both girls had periods of frustration, but they learned that good books required several rounds of editing, and they kept each other encouraged. Each week, they were eager to read their revisions, and they listened carefully to each other’s feedback. It was exciting to see the synergy between them. Little did I know that the process of critiquing and editing the girls’ books would pull me back into the writing world. I loved working closely with my young authors, encouraging them and pushing them towards excellence. Soon, a little voice in the back of my head told me it was time to do more than teach.
When the girls’ first books were published, I was incredibly proud of Sydney and Lauren-Kate. We celebrated with a party and a special reading where friends were invited. The girls sold their books at craft fairs and local bookstores, even took part in a multi-age author panel. They already had ideas for their second novels. I thought about my own writing, and knew it was time to get back to it. I wanted to model the life of a writer to my students. I had the sudden awareness that writing would not take away from my mothering, but could serve the purpose of inspiring Sydney and Lauren-Kate.
I refocused on my own goals and made a plan to finish the memoir that had been gathering dust in my drawer for over a decade. The story was important to me – a gift I wanted to leave for Sydney, a story that leads up to not only her long-awaited birth, but tells the emotional history of her mother and grandmother, a story that holds some of the deep love embedded in her family.
I set up a schedule of writing retreats and announced to my friends, “I want to finish my memoir by the end of 2013,” knowing they would help keep me accountable. I squeezed writing into my day – an hour here or there. I didn’t let the fact that I couldn’t hold the entire memoir in my head stop me, but worked on each scene paragraph by paragraph, word by word. At the same time, I pushed Sydney and Lauren-Kate to a higher standard as they wrote and revised their second books. My inner critic sometimes got the best of me, but thinking about my students propelled me forward. With youthful enthusiasm, they had paved the way, completing their own major projects. Now, it was my turn.
I’m happy to say my memoir Motherhood: Lost and Found was not only finished, but released in December of 2013, a few months after Sydney and Lauren-Kate’s second books were published.
What started out as a children’s writing class ended up being so much more. The class became a place where possibility blossomed – relationships grew, stories were shared, writing skills were polished and inspiration abounded. Not just for the girls, but for me as well as I discovered new purpose in my writing.
What advice do I have for other girls and women searching for purpose in their lives? Every girl and woman was made for a special purpose. Trust the little voice inside yourself. Notice how you feel when you are involved in something that captures your full attention and makes you feel alive. Some of the best work often feels like play.by