An epistle from your Reading and Writing course instructor

Gebriel Alazar Tesfatsion
12 min readFeb 24, 2023
Image by Deborah Hudson from Pixabay

Sunday. Morning. I am seated in my office over another cup of hot coffee steaming away. Strewn across the beige mahogany table before me are six textbooks on college writing and an open note book. I am preparing lessons for the week ahead. Presently, I have been trying to find an exemplar essay that uses several patterns of development (such as narration, description, argumentation, cause-and-effect, etc.) and build the lessons around it.

This is a weekend chore I have kept for eight years now more out of habit than conviction (I would rather have you do nothing but write, rewrite, re-rewrite, re-re-rewrite…. and write every day).

Today, for once in my life, I shove the task aside to write a letter, instead, a simple, spontaneous letter, from me to you, my dear students. There is so much I wish to say to you, so much I should have said in the eight months I have been your instructor, before I ever uttered the first words that Autumn morning I had my first class with you (“I am Gebriel,” I pronounced. The narcissism! As though you have been holding your breath to know who Gebriel is); so much I have not been able to, or have succeeded in imparting only in fragmentary, disjointed bits and pieces over the months. I wish to speak to you about all of that now in the one way I feel most comfortable: writing.

First, I wish to let you know that you are the center of the universe of my existence. My existence, in all its entirety, at this point in time, revolves around you, around the service of instructing you on the course Reading and Writing. You are the last thing I think about before I drift to sleep, the first when I resurface back to reality, and the labour of passion of my waking hours. You are also the main source of irritation of my friends with me, for I bring you into all the conversations with them. I find my heaven on earth in you, in your presence under the roof of the classroom, in the devout attention you lend my lesson (when you are not in one of your cranky moods), in the service I strive to give unto you, and also, in your constant presence in my mind.

You mean so much to me for no other reason than that you are my responsibility, the responsibility that the benevolent Force we call God, that is in me, in you, and in everyone and everything that has existence in Nature, entrusted to my care ever since He brought you into the sphere of my existence, as my pupil, to instruct you on the phenomena of reading and writing.

I cannot — I cannot shun, turn my back upon that duty, not without bringing doom upon myself — not without diminishing myself as a human being in the eyes of He who sent me on the errand, the Almighty God, and my fellow beings; not without incurring the dismay and wrath of God; not without turning you, everyone and everything, and most importantly myself against me. You see, in you, in the service I am entrusted to render unto you, I have my pathway to heaven or hell, both in this transient world and the hereafter. You are the clay soil upon which I sculpt my future, on earth and beyond. That is why I hold you, the responsibility of instructing you, tight to my heart, day in, day out; I hold you tight to my heart because I am afraid of not to, afraid of what God would do unto me if I did not — and the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.

The world never tires from distracting, impeding me from attending to that duty to you with worldly needs and cares. I am in this constant struggle to fight off this Thessalonica of my existence from luring away from my duty. The world, at other times, comes and says unto me, “Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee”.

In my moments of mental clarity, I find myself answering, “Who is my mother? And who are my brethren?” and stretching forth my hand toward you, and I go on to say, “Behold my mother and my brethren! For whoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother”.

Next, let me, at the risk of exposing my ignorance in the attempt, address the question I have been evading for the last eight months: what is writing?

Writing, I mean writing in the truest sense of the word ‘writing’ as opposed to scribbling, is a spiritual process. You cannot write — you cannot write so much as a single sentence of truth, beauty without dying, first, without killing yourself, peeling yourself off your flesh, and approaching writing in your naked spirit. You can write only in spirit. You see, writing is a pilgrimage, in spirit, so to speak, from inside the four walls of the room you sit in writing to the enchanting world of ideas. That pilgrimage begins in earnest when you summon the whole of your being — body, mind, and spirit — to that spot you sit bent on writing.

There is an antecedent to sitting down to write: you ought to be a disciple of your existence, a faithful disciple, the Apostle John, the disciple your own existence loves, and devoutly attend to the lesson it has to offer. In other words, a writer is, first, a reader, an avid reader, an avid reader of existence, an avid reader of her own existence.

Writing is borne out of the desire to share that lesson, the lesson you cull from your experiences in life, with your fellow beings in language, in human language that they can understand, and that speaks to the whole of their being, in the hope that the piece you put so much of yourself in crafting finds a traveler lost in the journey that is life, floundering in hopelessness, despair inside the dense fog of moral confusion that gathers around their minds in the course of living, and in the prayer that the lost traveler find message of hope, love, and courage and in so doing, find their way back to life, to right life. Writing is a service in answer to the spiritual needs of humanity, to their well-being, in all facets of life.

To that end, you withdraw from the world into the solitude, tranquility of your writing space, space tranquil as the womb and go into labour to give birth to the lesson in writing, to find expression that is fitting, seemly, in rhythm with, and faithful to it. You never settle for anything less than the most becoming expression. You spend a lifetime crafting a single sentence if you have to. Perhaps another sentence in another life.

Word is all the material, the brick and mortar available to you as a writer to build the Taj Mahal that you wish your writing to be. A writer ought to have reverence for word, built in the belief and the understanding that a word is, first, a creation, just like human, animal, plant, and inorganic beings — of a different level of development of being than them, yet of no less importance (If a true writer were to choose between the sacrifice of her human child, and the burning of her writing before its publication, she would find it difficult to choose between them). You create a word, you breathe life into its nostrils, just like God does into ours, when you write, utter, or think the word. What is even more, word is the genesis of all Creation, Capital ‘C’ Creation. “Be,” the Creator pronounced, and the universe and everything in it have become. We, too, are words, words come to flesh. So, too, God. God is the Word, rather. Thus the Good Book says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (The Gospel of John 1:1).

Only writing written in your capacity as spirit and in the love and reverence for words is true writing. You know true writing when you see it — when you forget that you are reading, when the book you are holding feels weightless, light as the air; when the words in black on the white page dissolve into the colourless ideas they represent; when the reading becomes effortless like breathing; when reading blends in with just living. A true writing is never loud — the words tread on the page softly — , nor is it pretentious. It calls not attention onto itself with wit. It is quiet as a whisper. It envies and seeks to emulate the eloquence of silence. And in the sheer power of its quietude, it rises above the clatter, din, and noises of the world, and touches the hearts and minds of its readers. A true test of the power of writing is that you are no longer the same person than you were when you began reading the piece, be it a voluminous book or a haiku, for you are transformed in some significant way.

To write a literature of that magnitude, first, you must outgrow your College — feel like you are a big fish, a blue whale in a small pond in it. You must outgrow even the earth and the galaxy it is in, because you are, you are bigger than that — as big as the galaxy is, it cannot contain you. Because you are infinity. Because you are the very image of that Who is the Creator of all things. Let the term ‘infinite’ be the affix before your name. Say ‘I am no more Estifanos’, but Infinite Estifanos. Hence, in that infinity that is your essence, aspire to write only beauty, love, sublimity, or forever hold up your pen. “Do not speak unless what you are going to say is more beautiful than silence” says Buddha. The same is true for writing. Writing is not writing if it is not worth the sacrifice of the tree for the leaf of paper you write on, the tree that Mother Earth nurtured over many years with its pristine minerals.

It is only in your growth into the infinite that is your essence that you write sublime, transcendent literature. The mundane words of the language you write in grow wings, fly, soar high in the sky of the souls of those blessed to read the inspired writing, whisper into their ears the glad tidings, the gospel, of times before the beginning of times, when you were only a thought in your Creator’s mind, free their spirit from the dungeon of the flesh, and transport them to bliss.

Then, the finger of God shall inscribe your inspired words across the sky so people from the four corners of the world would read them from now till Kingdom comes; the angels would come down to to buy it upon its publication; that God would put it in the library in Heaven, along with the Holy Scriptures.

If we truly knew language, we would know God.

To the extent that a piece of writing is not written in spirit, in the reverence and love for words, to the extent that you let your flesh weigh down on your aspiration is the writing earthly, uninspired, bland, cliché etc.

I understand that I speak to you of writing’s power at an age when it cannot be more powerless, of its beauty when it cannot get any uglier, and of its love when it cannot be more disdained. At no point in the history of humanity has writing been so proliferate, deluge of publication every year, yet most of them are just noises with little substance (Walking into a library feels like walking into a flea market where people are shouting at the top of their lungs). Do not mistake these for true writing. These are writing dead before they are born — stillborn literature, or they experience miscarriage upon meeting the cold gaze of their reader. These are writings that dissipate from your memory while you are reading them. After all, they are writings written in ego than in spirit written in haste, impatience with the impure intention of getting their name in print.

The prevalent state of literature is a reflection not of the inherent beauty and power of language, but rather the bareness and depravity of the soul of the writer who writes it and the world he dwells and imbibes the constitution from. They can only write what they are. They cannot write what they are not. “Sublimity [in writing],” in the words of Longinus, “is the echo of a noble mind”, a ‘great soul’.

I come to every class with you with only that object in mind, that aspiration, of opening your eyes to the beauty and power of language and of planting the fire of the love for writing in your stomach so much so that you resent every little hour you spend sleeping, so much so that you cannot not write. You see, any minute not spent on writing is a waste. Should you even run out of ink, cut open your vein and continue writing with your blood (you surely die, but death is a bargain in exchange for the immortality you gain through the work you die for in the hearts and minds of your fellow beings).

Yet, I cannot instill that in you. Standing huge as a mountain on the way of the duty of passing that love and beauty of writing onto you is, first, education. You cannot ‘teach’ writing — writing is unteachable. Nor is everything else that is worth learning for that matter. In the immortal words of Oscar Wilde, “Nothing worth learning can be taught”. You can only learn them. My intention in coming to class has never been to ‘teach’ you writing, but rather to get out of the way of your learning.

The bigger mountain of obstacle than education is myself — I am the biggest impediment on the way of my own duty to inspire you to write. For the simple reason that I cannot. This letter is, among other things, a confession to you that I am an impostor — I am no instructor of writing. I know not why the Force in its infinite intelligence would choose me to be your reading and writing instructor. Is it not a travesty that a person who has never written so much as a single sentence, a line of literature to hold this post? Where from does a person get the temerity to stand before students and inspire them on what he knows not?

The aimless, prodigal life I, for the most part, have had since birth have plucked the feathers of the power and intelligence I was born with and conditioned me into the mediocrity that you have the misfortune of being taught by. In every class, I desperately, pathetically flap my wings to fly up to expectation, but do not budge an inch off the ground.

I suffer from an acute sense of impostor syndrome. Discomforting, gnawing sense of ineptitude, helplessness seizes me before every class I have with you. I feel sick to the pit of my stomach at the sense of that ineptitude. In these hours of agony, passion, I fall on my knees and weep, why for have You planted so lofty an aspiration in the heart of a mediocre such as myself. These children deserve a better instructor than I am, than I can ever be. Can’t you see that I am doing more harm than good, a mockery of what writing is, that, on that account, my students, Your students! are losing the little faith in writing that remains in them!

Yet, you are still here, aren’t you, in the sphere of my existence, as my pupil, as I am in yours, as your instructor. I cannot but console myself in the wisdom that all the universe asks of me is to be true to you, even in my mediocrity, true to that purpose I am here in existence for at this point in time, and never hold back from giving the whole of myself to it.

After all is said and done, writing, for the one who writes, is not so much about what she writes as it is about what she becomes, what she continues to become in the process of writing, the fuller human being she evolves into: eloquent, clear-minded, dutiful, wise, empathetic, etc. The person undergoes a sort of purification of being in the pilgrimage he pursues over the years. The zenith of that growth is becoming the writer. No one is the writer; no one has ever been. There are those who just write, and those who write for a living, but never the writer. One ultimately becomes the writer when she does not need to pick pen and paper to write, to edit and revise his thoughts; when whatever she says, thinks, and acts in the spontaneity of the moment becomes writing, so to speak, writing in the truest sense of the word.

The best writing humanity has produced in the entirety of its existence is writings without written words, in the lives of the few enlightened persons who have walked on the earth, such as Prophet Mohammed, Helen Keller, Martin Luther King Jr., in the way they lived. Theirs is writing written in universal language that people of all tongues can understand. The world read them, and whatever the world read transformed it.

You see, everyone is a reader and a writer. You are always reading and writing; you are never not reading and writing. That is called living. To be in existence is to read and write. You read the persons in the sphere of your existence as they read you. The friends in your life and the warmth of the friendship you have with them is a clear reflection of how enjoyable a read you are, how beautiful a writing, or the lack thereof.

Now you see that the course Reading and Writing that I shoulder is a course on existence itself, why I have been struggling to my breaking point under the enormity of its weight, why no one but God can do justice to the course.