Slice of Life: Being a Witness to the World


There is a pond in the woods behind our house where we spent many hours exploring when my boys were growing up. They fished there in the summer and we skated in winter, but I hardly ever go back there anymore.

Sunday was a beautiful winter day here in Connecticut. There wasn’t any wind and the sky was a clear, brilliant blue, so I decided to walk down the hill to say hello to the pond. I quickly discovered that my plan wouldn’t be an easy one to carry out. The path was quite overgrown with pricker bushes that kept catching on my coat and hat. I forged ahead, but came around a bend and saw that a tree had fallen across the trail. Vines had grown up over it, making it look like a trellis or bower guarding a secret garden, a garden that I wasn’t going to be able to enter.

As I trudged back up the hill, I realized the overgrown path was like my writing brain. It’s been mostly ignored and untended for the past six months. Every time I sit down to write I feel like I have to fight my way through an overgrown thicket of brambles.

Over the past couple of weeks, though, I’ve been writing more and more and I’ve noticed that I can actually feel my brain become more flexible and limber when I sit down to write. I’m definitely more responsive to the world around me.

This got me thinking about our students, and what happens when they don’t have opportunities to write every day, or chances to sit and contemplate an idea or an image. In her book Writing Toward Home: Tales and Lessons to Find Your Way (Heinemann, 1995), Georgia Heard recommends writing “ten observational sketches” every day for a week, writing everything you notice and hear. “The more accurately you can observe your world and capture it in words,” Heard writes, “the more concrete your writing will become.” It might be a challenge to get kids to write ten sketches each day, but three or four seems reasonable. Think of the writing stamina they would build!

I’m looking forward to spring and getting that path cleared so I can go check on the pond. After all, as Georgia Heard also so wisely points out, “It is a writer’s job to act as witness to the world, to remind us all to stay awake.”

Brian and Michael at the edge of the pond.

Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnnaBeth, Kathleen, and Deb for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

15 thoughts on “Slice of Life: Being a Witness to the World

  1. Love so many things about this piece of writing… mostly it touched my heart as I realize I am missing those moments with my sons who are now 14 and 16. I treasure every moment we have now but can feel they are slowly slipping away. Maybe sledding this weekend??


  2. I really like the comparison between the overgrown (but familiar) path, and the writer’s brain. Writing is a mental muscle that definitely gets stronger with exercise! Hope to see you for the month-long slicing challenge.


  3. This is gorgeous! I think you’ve been taking Georgia Heard’s advice and doing your writing exercises. I love the way you describe things. Please keep writing–I am aching to hear more written in this beautiful voice!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great analogy between the pond and the writing brain. I’m thinking I need to check out Geargia Heard’s book.Enjoy building your reading life and clearing the path to the pond.


  5. That Georgia Heard quote will stay with me forever. Have written it in my notebook. Thank you. We really need to push open the way to the pond every day. You are so right.


  6. Such a beautiful metaphor, comparing the path to your writing life. Writing on a regular basis does keep our words flowing and free. I’m glad you are going to clear the path — in both your writing and in your forest. (Cute picture, too!)


  7. Once again a wonderful post with much to ponder. Like others, I love the skillfully drawn analogy between the path and your writing life, and the Georgia Heard quote, and the ultimate connection to the classroom and our students’ writing lives. I’m enjoying the fruits of your flexible brain as you clear through the brambles. And who can resist those beautiful grinning children?


  8. You have this way of finding the metaphors in life. Love this path. I was walking beside you. I didn’t want to turn around, though. Come on. Let’s go. I recently bought Writing Toward Home. Where has it been hiding? I hope you will try to get back to the pond. Somehow this feels important.


  9. What a wonderful post. You make it so clear that writing regularly is what propels us forward and makes us better writers. How sad when teachers relegate just one day a week (and sometimes not even that) for writing. And thanks for including the great picture!


  10. Georgia Heard is someone I will always read. She touches us not only because of teaching. Thanks for reminding about the quote, Catherine. I love your connections between those brambles and the brain, beautifully written, and love the memories and picture too. Sweet times when our kids were young!


  11. Love this post! Living in Connecticut myself, of course, I can see the woods and the fallen trees and the vines growing over them. I, too, am an avid nature girl! And ironically, Georgia Heard turned up in my twitter feed just a little while ago too. I know the book, and love it. I’d heard Georgia speak years ago…and like so many, she became a kind of mentor in the classroom to me! Volume…daily output is really where it’s at for our students and making our own writing life explicit to them, I think, is equally important as well! It’s that forward thinking, kind of like driving along on the road, that writers need. And you can’t get there without taking the action for long periods of time each day!


  12. “It is a writer’s job to act as witness to the world, to remind us all to stay awake.” Good words for me, as I worry about how to write again for every day in March. After four years, I’m still petrified and hoping that i can keep up. It’s harder since I’m no longer in the classroom. Will keep this quote as a reminder that I still need to remind everyone to stay awake/


  13. So love the magic in your writing, Catherine. I hear your voice in your blog posts! Love the sheer honesty in your failed attempt to reach the pond . . . this time! Perfect connections to what happened to the path to the pond and not writing on a regular basis!


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