On Writing: Kick Paddle, Kick Paddle, Kick Paddle

Several years ago I was on a Southwest airlines flight from Oakland to San Diego, about the time when Southwest introduced comedic flight attendants. When talking through the emergency procedures, ours told us that in event of a water landing we only needed to remember three things:

  1. kick paddle,
  2. kick paddle,
  3. kick paddle.

Whether or not you think this is funny is beside the point (I did, and I don’t), but it does serve as a nice way to think about what to do when you don’t know what else to do. Kick paddle, kick paddle, kick paddle. In other words, work your way through it.

Here’s how and why I think this applies to writing.  My students often tell me they suffer from writer’s block: they don’t know where to begin, they don’t know what to say, how to say it, or why they are stuck. Well, guess what! Most people who write — professional writers, student writers, or people who need to get any sort of writing done — experience this at one point or another. I know that I certainly have, and when I do, I take the flight attendant’s words to heart: Kick paddle, kick paddle, kick paddle. I write something. Even if it’s what Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird calls a “shitty first draft,” at least the ideas get out of my head and onto paper where I  can deal with them.


The title of Lamott’s book comes from this story that illustrates her point and mine:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was  ten years old at the time, was trying to get a  report on birds written that he’d had three months to  write. It was due the next day. We were out at our  family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen  table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds,  immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my  father sat down beside him, put his arm around my  brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.'”

Bird by bird. Kick paddle, kick paddle, kick paddle.

It is important to know that when you are in the midst of this kind of feeling, that as long as you are kick-paddling you are not drowning, though it may feel like it. It is important to know, also, that there may not be a PFD or a rescue boat — that you may very well need to be your own life savers, at least during this stage of the writing process.

And … it is also important to remember that when you are kick-paddling, you are, in fact, moving. You are going somewhere;  you are writing something; you are choosing some action over no action. And it is true that neither the route nor the destination may be clear until they become clear, but it’s kick-paddling that will get you to where you are going. It may not be the most graceful of swims, you may be tired (exhausted, probably!), and you will surely not have reached your final destination, but you will have made very good progress.

So to my students who are in the midst of drafting their first full PLA essays this week, I offer this:

  1. kick paddle,
  2. kick paddle,
  3. kick paddle.

I very much look forward to meeting you on shore next week.


2 thoughts on “On Writing: Kick Paddle, Kick Paddle, Kick Paddle

  1. Melanie, Good advice for all who are writing. I love your closing line… what a wonderful image for capturing a moment of the journey between teacher and students. Cheers! H

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