“I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind.” – Albus Dumbledore
Perhaps because I’ve just returned from a trip to Orlando and Universal Studios’ Harry Potter World – a Hogwarts full-immersion with my two daughters and family friends – I’ve got Dumbledore’s words in my mind. My perennially-crammed mind.
Because of our visit to the Sunshine State’s version of JK Rowlings’ wizard realm, our family has been on a tear re-reading the Harry Potter series. As an over-stretched teacher and parent, this passage spoke to me. Maybe because I’ve tried meditating – mostly in vain – to calm the frenetic pace I often feel. Maybe because I’m sometimes roused at 3 am by a vortex of thoughts, to-do lists, and worries. Perhaps because I’m quite sure there are times when my eyes roll around in my over-stuffed head like Cookie Monster’s spinning pupils. Whatever the reason, when I came across Dumbledore’s words I thought, I hear you, Headmaster. Turns out I didn’t need mindfulness or melatonin. All I needed was a Pensieve.
Remember in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Dumbledore is explaining to Harry one of the most fascinating objects in his study? Harry had accidentally fallen into the Pensieve, a kind of magical stone vessel, and it had transported him back in time into Dumbledore’s memories. After Harry returns to the present, the headmaster explains: “One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them in the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.” While Harry looks on, Dumbledore pulls several thoughts – glistening, silvery-white strands – and deposits them into the Pensieve. He then stirs the contents with his wand, “as a gold prospector would pan for fragments of gold.”
What I wouldn’t give to pull off some excess thoughts this way, squeezing out some superfluous brain matter! It reminds me of the way we used those mini-turkey-baster mucus syringes on our sick kids when they were too young to blow their noses. But more profound than that. And less disgusting. OK, scratch that comparison. But think: if only the Pensieve wasn’t mere fiction! If it were real, for instance, these memories of seriously ticking off babies by overzealous nasal suction – these could be tossed away into a magical file cabinet! I certainly don’t need memories of mucus extraction cluttering up my valuable, finite brain space!
And then I realized – I’ve had a Pensieve at my disposal for quite some time: writing. For me, writing – at least in the way I think of it now – began with Bruce Ballenger. Ballenger, a UNH professor and disciple of Don Murray, taught me Freshman English and upended virtually everything I thought I knew about composition. He taught us “the importance of writing badly” – to turn off our internal critics and to get as much as we could on the page, as fast as possible. Back in high school, teachers had instructed me to outline (mostly unsuccessful jumbles of Roman numerals and upper-case letters) and to begin each essay with a well-formed thesis statement. My routine was: press on temples until idea forms. Wait for pressure to build (generally late on the night before writing piece is due). Take whatever idea comes – something the teacher will want to hear, couched in as complicated language as I could muster – and stick it in the introduction. Build entire essay around this “thesis,” at all costs (despite the fact that I would often get to the end of the piece not really sure what I had actually said).
Ballenger blew all that up, teaching us instead to brainstorm, freewrite, web, and mind-map in order to figure out what we think. That we could discover what we want to say through the process of writing. It was a crash course in writing workshop as “the Dons” – Murray and Graves – had (unbeknownst to me) been espousing it. And it worked. When I tried “quickwriting,” I was amazed at the ideas that flooded out, and what I could often find when I looked them over, sifting through the chaff. Yes, there was drivel and painful prose there, but there were virtually always pleasant surprises. Lines that revealed things I didn’t know I felt or thought. An unexpected phrase or concept that would take me in a whole new direction. A new lead or focus that I would never have seen if I had been forced to plan it all out before putting pen to paper.
Many years later, I bought my first home around the corner from the university, and Don Murray became my neighbor. He graciously visited my classroom to speak with my students and gave me, as he did so many people, a laminated version of his credo: “nulla dies sine linea (Never a Day Without a Line)”. To hear Don tell it, “the most important muscle for a writer is the gluteus maximus: sit your rear end in the chair and write.” He didn’t believe the Muses flitted in with inspiration for the indolent; writing – good, insightful writing – came from hard work and consistent effort. Put in the time, crank up the word count, and the ideas will come.
* * * *
It’s early in the fall and I’m asking my fifth graders: What’s writing good for, anyway? What’s the point? They amaze me with their lists: to tell our stories, to entertain our friends, because it’s fun. I add to the class list: “To figure out what I think.” When I write, it may not stop the whirling jumble in my mind, but it slows it down long enough for me to get a good look at my memories, thoughts, or feelings about a topic. I can look at the big picture or dive deep into the details, trying to make sense of it all. It’s like wading into a yard of swirling fireflies and catching one in a jar. You gaze at it in the fading light, look at it from all angles, and wonder if it will suddenly illuminate. An orange spark in the ink dark night. A golden fleck in the prospector’s pan.
You can keep your magic basin, Dumbledore. Just show me to the chair.