The Ongoing Work of Composing a Life
How the advice of a college English professor changed how I think about writing—and what it means to be a writer
Writers are people who publish books or articles or essays—things that get consumed by lots of people—and writing is communication between author and reader. That’s how we’re taught to think about these things, anyway, and of course that’s at best incomplete. We’re all writers to some degree, even if we’re the only ones who read our work, and writing is so much more than a profession.
That’s something I learned as a 17-year-old freshman from my English professor, Dr. Jeane. “Writing is a way of composing yourself,” she told me. “Do it.”
It was some of the best life advice I ever got.
Dr. Jeane meant “composing” in the broadest sense. Putting words on paper is the easy part. Figuring out what you want to say, and whose voice you want to say it in, that’s the heart of it. Writing is a way to organize your thoughts, she told us—to get yourself together, to figure out what you really believe about the world, and who you really are. And it’s no easy thing. Composing yourself usually takes a few drafts.
It has been many years since Dr. Jeane dared me to figure out my own mind, and I’m still trying. Writing has been part of every class I’ve ever taken, every job I’ve ever had, every relationship that’s ever meant anything to me. I’m still composing myself through words on a page, still drafting and redrafting my days. And just about everything in my adult life has demanded the careful composition Dr. Jeane encouraged. I’ve written local news copy for NBC, speeches for the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, and magazine profiles of technology leaders at the dawn of the tech boom. I’ve also churned out thousands of emails to bosses and coworkers, countless letters to family and friends, and the occasional appeal for help to mentors.
Writing, it turns out, is also a way of composing a career.
That has never been clearer to me than the last 11 months, when I’ve been cut off from most normal contact with friends and colleagues. Video chats, phone calls, and rare open-air visits have all been great for staying connected. But nothing works quite as well as writing. And over the course of a socially-distanced 2020, I wrote—a lot. As Chief of Global Policy at the College Board, I've sent more than 70,000 words to my College Board team alone, covering everything from mundane HR issues to profound questions of grief, hope, democracy, and justice.
A few years back—way before newsletters were cool—I began emailing a weekly note. It was a way of organizing my work life and ensuring that my team knew what was happening across the organization, what I was doing and why. The idea to do this grew out of some harsh feedback I had received. People across my office didn’t feel connected, and nobody knew what the heck I did all day. We weren’t, to borrow a metaphor, on the same page.
Writing did wonders to fix that, so I took it further. Instead of limiting those staff notes to work topics, I ventured into personal reflections. It quickly became a way of opening up, composing a version of myself that was more nuanced than just a boss or a colleague. I wrote about things like the uninvited insult that is the AARP membership card, my mom's wild hog problem out in the Texas Hill Country, books that made me smarter, articles that made me laugh, and people who helped me see the word differently. And once the magnitude of the covid-19 crisis became clear, the weekly email became a real-time journal of the plague year.
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The discipline of writing forced me to slow down and pay closer attention, to notice things worth sharing and opportunities for giving credit. It made even the prosaic parts of life—like a weird interaction in the airport QDOBA line—into fodder for stories. (Short version: It was a skirmish in the ongoing holy war about the arbitrary age limit on the kid quesadilla.) Writing will do that, turning even your boring days into something worth sharing. It will also give you the means to make sense of the inconceivable—or at least try—and find community with others attempting the same.
Talking to my now-college-age twin nieces, I’ve come to appreciate how much their social media habits encourage a version of this storytelling impulse. They go through their days looking for interesting moments to share, alert to things that might make a decent story. The difference, though, is in that all-important word: composing.
I think Dr. Jeane would’ve appreciated a good Snapchat story, but only if it took some time and only if you thought hard about the images, the graphics, the words and the sequence—the composing. It was always the thinking and effort she wanted us to value, the discipline of organizing your thoughts before you sent them out into the world.
A blank page is a scarier starting point than an Instagram square or a TikTok window. At least it is for me, It doesn’t give you a template or offer you something to share at the push of a button. It’s just you and the page, its infinite possibility staring back at you as a dare. And meeting that challenge takes time. There’s no immediate reward to writing; the slowness and frustration are the point. That’s how you know the gears are working; how you can be sure there’s real thinking going on. Fitting yourself into a social media template is easy; composing yourself is hard.
When I was younger, I traded letters—actual stamped-and-addressed letters—with legendary Texas reporter Jerry Flemmons. He had seen a lot in his life and written about much of it, including on-the-ground dispatches from the Kennedy assassination, a surreal stint as Lee Harvey Oswald’s pallbearer, and dictating a national story from pay phone during the 1966 shootings from the tower of the main building at the University of Texas. He knew more than most about writing as a way of figuring things out. He urged me to watch and listen and make a record of the world—but not try to change it. "Little girl,” he wrote, “you'll learn soon enough, the world doesn't want to be changed."
He was half right. The world doesn’t want to be changed. But you have to push it anyway. You have to compose something new.
We’re all writing our own lives, Dr. Jeane wanted me to understand. “Do it,” she said. Do it well.