The Home Team / So, just write about anything
Published 6:46 am, Thursday, February 9, 2012
For the writing course in "The Personal Essay" I'm teaching this semester, I emailed my students the following assignment before the first class meeting: Please pick an idea you've been dying to write about but have never gotten around to. Then write a personal essay about this idea.
When the class got together, several writers said they weren't exactly sure what I'd meant by a "personal essay." So I offered them a very specific definition of the genre: a short piece about any topic whatsoever in which whatever information is provided takes a back seat to the writer's thoughts, feelings and point of view on the subject.
Even with this prompt, a few of them were still stumped. This struck me as odd. Hadn't I just given them the dream assignment? I'd invited them to write about whatever came into their heads about . . . anything! It seemed to me that if you thought of yourself as a writer, and my assumption was this was exactly the kind of person who might tend to take a writing course, wouldn't you have an almost endless supply of ideas that you'd stockpiled over the years?
When I was originally asked to start writing "The Home Team," I remember that wonderful sense of being flush with topics. I felt as if I had a bottomless pit of brilliant ideas that it would take me years to exhaust.
Okay, so maybe they weren't all brilliant. When my two older sons, 12 and 9 at the time, saw me put the finishing touches on my inaugural column, they asked me what the title was going to be. "Carpools I've Known and Loved," I told them. They looked at me as if I'd lost my mind. Carpools? How could you write a column about carpools, they were obviously thinking. And why would you want to?
But that's not the point.
The point is I'd been given the freedom to write about pretty much anything, no matter how random or quirky or offbeat or out of left field -- and it felt to me as if I had about a trillion ideas I was dying to get to.
Sure, I've depended on a number of common threads. Over the 18 years I've been writing "The Home Team" I've touched on Little League 25 times and Ricky the Beagle 21. I've dissected the "joys" of having a much younger third child 20 times, tackled the Staples Wreckers football team 16 times and have mused over the insanity of getting into college on 12 occasions. Sometimes I write about earth-shattering revelations I've had that I'd like to share, as I did in "Multiply By Three." (My thesis: If you're trying to figure out how long ago something in your personal history happened -- say, that awful shoulder surgery -- and you think it was five years ago, then it was really 15.) Other times I write about transformational passages in my life, like becoming a golfer after years and years of calling golfers sissies, or finally adopting the coffee habit and discovering there's actually life before noon.
Of course I no longer have that limitless trove of ideas. This is my four hundred and eighty-seventh column, so the original cushion has long since been eroded. But if you're tempted to get in touch with me and tell me, "Hank, I have this great idea for you" -- thanks, but don't bother. I've tried from time to time to write about other people's "great ideas," and it just doesn't work for me. For better or for worse, if it's not invented here, it doesn't fly.
But I'm not worried. I have a week-and-a-half before my next column's due. I'm sure I'll come up with something. After all, I can write about anything in the world . . .
In addition to "The Home Team," which appears every other Friday, you can also keep up with Hank's adventures with his dog, Ricky, on his blog, "Beagle Man," on the Westport News website, at: http://blog.ctnews.com/beagleman/