Things that work

Mitchell Bay, San Juan Island, October 2010

The years that I teach a Science Unit on Electricity, we start off learning about circuits.  How electricity has to have a pathway, how electricity likes to run in circles.  It’s all fine and well to be able to say that electricity must have a complete circuit to turn on the little light bulb but that’s a totally different thing from getting that little 1.5 V bulb to light up.

The day after we talk about what a circuit is (talk, talk, talk…after a half hour lesson on concept one day, where all we did was talk, one boy raised his hand to inform me that I had misread the schedule: “You said we were going to do science, but all you did was talk.”) then we actually build one.  It’s great to watch, especially with kids who really haven’t done a lot of hands on science before.  All that talk about what a circuit is melts like snow and there they are touching the battery to the light bulb or lining all the pieces up–light bulb, wire, battery.  Why isn’t it working?

They go through the stage of telling me each different piece is broken (it can’t be them, it must be the parts).  They they tell me it’s too hard.  Then, off in one corner of the room, one group starts shrieking.  “We did it!  We did it!”  And in the process of carrying the circuit over to show me, they break the connection.

But once it’s been done, once they’ve seen someone do it, they’re determined.  And the more they mess with the parts, rearranging them, reconnecting them and watching that pathetic little bulb flicker with the trickle from the D cell battery in a moment of triumph, finally it all starts to make sense.

There’s the circle, the circuit.  That’s what she means.  Now I understand.


Every book on writing by writers says two important things at some point in its pages.  One, that in order to write one must actually sit down and do it and Two, that every writer has her thing that works–the place they go that gets them started, the writing exercise that breaks them in, the pen, the time of day.  Of course, the corollary to two is that, even if your special place or pen or whatever isn’t available, you still need to sit down and write.

These rules, if that’s the right word for them, are obvious.  A circuit is round.  The electricity has to flow.  Duh.  I know I’ve read it a hundred times.  So why wasn’t I writing?  I didn’t have anything to say.  I wasn’t awake enough.  I wasn’t relaxed enough.  I didn’t have the right pen.  I did have the right pen and it was too intimidating to use it because I might write something not worthy of the pen (really).

Then, one day, I was sitting at the pub, across the table from a writing pal as the she typed the final words of her first manuscript.  The arc of the story was done.  Sure, revision awaits, but that little light bulb?  I saw it flicker.  She did it and I know her and that means it’s not about the pieces.  It’s about putting them together.

Since then, I’ve discovered few things.  I write best when I can pretend to myself that no one is looking–in bed, in a dark room, at night, in the afternoon, in coffee shops, in pubs where the waitress serves up Strongbow before we ask.  I write best when I’m relaxed, not looking over my own shoulder, but I also relax when I write.  Vacations help.  Beautiful scenery helps.  Watching people helps.  And just sitting down and writing–not thinking too hard about whether or not I want to or whether or not its the perfect time or temperature or hour of the day–that helps.  Just sit down and write.  Oh.  Now I get it.  This is what they mean.

Now I understand.

This entry was posted in Science, Teaching, Travel, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Things that work

  1. jmforceton says:

    Christie – Liked your poem on EDP and your posts here. I also like to write around wind and water based themes and also have the same problem writing consistently that you describe so well.

    Your circuit story is perfect. Richard Feynman, a former physicist, always talked about visualizing, seeing the concept, no matter how intangible it might seem.

    Between jobs a few years ago I was a substitute teacher for a sixth grade math class studying area and circumference. The examples were sterile geometric shapes, the class was bored, so I told them to use 93 million miles as the radius and divide by the number of hours in one year to find out how fast we were moving as we sat there circling the sun. Of course, as you know, they loved it and so did I.

    All the Best


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