How Longfellow Created a Legend, or A Little Encouragement for Mid-NaNoWriMo Blues

Listen my children, and you shall hear…

My guess is almost anyone who reads those words can finish the sentence.

…of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.

Longfellow’s poem about Paul Revere’s daring ride through the night to warn Patriot minutemen about the imminent British attack is probably one of the best-known/most recognizable works of poetry among everyday Americans. A family trip to Boston this past summer brought to light some interesting facts about its writing.

Yes, it took two of us to take this picture. Selfies are hard. (Also, my phone weirdly distorts faces sometimes.)

I seriously love these box-style pews inside Old North Church. Aren’t they fun?

These are our “man-my-feet-are-tired” smiles outside Paul Revere’s house. The boys are surprisingly chipper.

According to the placards in the Old North Church, Longfellow wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride” when America was on the brink of the Civil War. The country was rife with conflict and division, and Longfellow wanted to remind his readers of their shared history during the Revolutionary War. He also wanted to inspire them to courage, reminding them how one man could change history. So he wrote a poem about a little-known silversmith who had helped deliver a warning that helped save two Patriot leaders and a cache of weapons and ammunition.

I’ve written before about my fascination regarding the man who was a hero for delivering a message. What struck me during our trip to Boston is how no one today except the history buffs would know who that messenger was if it weren’t for Longfellow. Revere’s two fellow messengers, William Dawes and Samuel Prescott, have fallen into relative obscurity by comparison—and Prescott, ironically, was the only one of the three who made it all the way to Concord with his warning. Revere and Dawes were either detained or delayed by British troops on the road there.

The name Paul Revere, on the other hand, is instantly recognizable, thanks to Longfellow’s poem. Because of Longfellow, children hear the story and actually remember it. Because of Longfellow, that midnight ride has become something of legend.

Here’s my point: Writers, your words matter.

By now, many of you are in the depths of NaNoWriMo. (I opted out this year—work and grad school combined made the prospect a little too challenging. For anyone unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, it stands for National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write 50,000 words in a month.) At this point, you’re probably over the initial excitement of working on something new, and you may be lost in the weeds of plot holes, implausible character motivations, and dialogue so cheesy only a mouse would like it.

But that’s okay.

For now, forget about trying to be Longfellow. Don’t try to create a legend—chances are pretty good you’ll end up disappointed. Instead, just start by writing words.

They can be messy words.

Angry words.

Frustrated words.

Fear-filled words.

Even grammatically incorrect words (you can catch those in the editing process).

Write them anyway, because later, when you’ve stepped back from the initial flash of inspiration and the frantic act of meeting your word count goals every day, when you’ve gotten a little distance from the project, you may find words that surprise you.

Words that are beautiful.

Words that express things you didn’t even know you felt.

Words that say something important.

Words that are…imperfectly perfect.

For the sake of those words, keep writing. In the act of creation, you are bringing order to a world of chaos, and that is something we desperately need these days.

Maybe you won’t be a Longfellow, but you may inspire someone to courage. You may remind someone that anyone can change history. Who knows?

So take a deep breath. Read “Paul Revere’s Ride” for inspiration. Get some chai and chocolate for sustenance. And then get back to writing.

I’m cheering you on from the sidelines!

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