Learning to Write

I’ve been writing this blog for 5 months now.  It’s the first blog I’ve ever had and I am enjoying it. I try to write a post a week. This is slightly strenuous as I have other things to do. I need blocks of uninterrupted time. I need a topic I am ready to write about. I am no longer facile enough to blather on about anything. And I am slow.

Every time I sit down to write, I think of all the teachers who forced me to put words down. I am indebted to them for teaching me to organize my thoughts and instructing me on wielding the tools of language. I have noticed that those with whom I was educated manipulate language with a lot of skill. And these are not just the classmates who became writers. These are farmers, yogis, scientists, doctors- eloquent people in every field. I think it is because we learned to do it early and got plenty of practice.

The last time I wrote with regularity, I was in high school. I was slow, but not as slow as I am now. I was blessed early on with a lot of teachers who made 2826079915_7b8ccb95b7me write, and I got good at churning out papers. Mrs. Eaby (2nd grade) made me write a lot of stories. Ms. Moorehead (5th grade) regularly had me turning in 4-5 pages of notebook paper full of stories, reports, or essays, and she made us journal every day.  She also had me write and illustrate a book for a kid’s writing competition. I’m pretty sure that’s the year I developed the divot in my right index finger where my pen sits.

In sixth grade, I moved to a college prep school and wrote at least a paper a week until graduation. It started on a typewriter. I loved the click of the keys, the way the hammers struck with enough force to emboss the letters into the paper. But, oh, correction tape was such a pain, and I had to compose by hand and then type the final draft, pecking all the way until Mrs. Butterfield forced us all to learn to type correctly. Thank you, Mrs. B for your strangely stressful class of sixth graders all doing timed typing exercises while you walked around correcting hand position and catching us looking at our hands. (My favorite Mrs. B quote: “If you’re going to lie or cheat at something, do it for something important, not a typing test.”) Her class proved invaluable in this digital age.

My teachers took the time to offer real critiques of my mechanics, styles and thought process. I got paragraphs of reflection at the end of each paper and, with the exception of one teacher, I always knew exactly why a paper had earned the grade it did.

We wrote papers on everything at that school. I still have most of them in binders, arranged by year. Most were essays on literature we were studying. I wrote an epic poem in 8th grade that was 15 pages long. I am sorry you had to grade that, Mr. Brown.  I wrote lab write-ups (which I hated,) ½ pages in Spanish, a couple research papers for orchestra (yes, orchestra,) painfully dramatic stories, bad poetry, regurgitations and research papers for history class, oral and written presentations on Plato, Aristotle, and Nietzsche (oye,) and an assigned over-analysis of The Beach Boys’ song “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena.” (It’s a feminist diatribe against the American male establishment, in case you were wondering.)

In ninth grade, we read The Elements of Style, and were forced to own and refer to the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. It was not fun reading, but it proved useful, despite my griping at the time. The best thing I got out of that school was some mastery over words and the tools to make them do my bidding.

large_text53874_32560By my junior year, I could click out a 3-5 pager (1” margins, 1.5 spaced, Palatino font, Chicago- if it seemed short) on my hand-me-down Macintosh SE in a few hours. I never took my teachers’ advice to do a rough draft ahead of time. It all happened in one sitting- write, re-read, panic, shift paragraphs, compose new transitions, re-read, tweak, write the intro, make sure I wrapped it all up at the end, print, pull off the dot-matrix edges, staple or clip (depending on the teacher) and go to bed between 2 and 4 am.

I worked well with a fire lit under my rear. Some of the best papers I wrote were the three I wrote for Mr. Musgrave at the end of 10th grade. They were overdue and he said he’d fail me if I didn’t have them all in by the end of the week. I wrote one every night for three nights. He gave me barely passing marks because they were so late, but wrote glowing feedback and said that they were worth waiting for and my best work. Apparently, I thrive on fear.

When I went to college for music, I knew my writing days were essentially over. I picked my freshman English class based on the number of books in the syllabus that I had already studied. I read one new work for that class- A Doll’s House. I had my mom send me all my notes and papers on the other books. She asked me if that was plagiarism. “Nope,” I said, having already anticipated the objection. “It’s my work. They are rough drafts for this class.” It was awesome. Professor DuRocher like my writing and I did rework them… except for the one where I only changed the date and the professor’s name. I did; I’m not proud of it. I was working very hard at trying to get my mind and fingers around playing chord progressions and that paper on Hamlet was already passable. By the way, Professor DuRocher, may he rest in peace, was a truly inspiring teacher. I wish I had the chance to really study with him.

Writing for my music history professor was a nightmare. I spent my entire education learning to write artful prose with style and flow and she had no use for such froth. Dr. Hanson was tough 6189238026_ea959a4e23_nas nails, no nonsense, “don’t waste my time with your flowery segues and connecting transitions.” She would cross them out and write “bullshit” on anything that didn’t directly support my thesis. I got disappointing marks on every paper I wrote for her because I could not bring myself to write the way she wanted. She was also the kind of teacher who took off a point for every misplaced comma in footnotes and bibliography. And you had better stay consistent with either MLA or ALA style! I am getting tense just thinking about it.

I took 5 classes with this excellent teacher. She knew her stuff and was painfully efficient and clear in her presentation of the material. By the 5th semester, I got it. She finally broke me of my habit of nice writing. I turned in a paper on Copland’s “The Tender land” opera that read like an outline. An outline was my first draft. I took out the letters and numbers, added enough words to make full sentences, double and triple checked my notations and turned in a completely artless paper full of nothing but analysis and citations. The introduction actually included the phrases “First, I will show… Then, I will analyze… Finally, I will…” She deemed it acceptable. I earned an A and she wrote on the last page “Yes! You finally got it!” Whew, what a relief.

So here I am, making myself write again, in my pre-Dr. Hanson style, because it is good for me, because it helps me sort my mind and because, apparently, people besides my mother enjoy reading it.

425669_225060984259427_1569910971_nTo my writing teachers, Eaby, Moorehead, McAfee, Robertson, Moore, Lipkowitz, Brown, Scanlon, Musgrave, Kuh (even though I didn’t have you in class,) Pennington, Field, Hanson, and DuRocher, thank you. I hope I don’t embarrass.

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