Sunday, September 09, 2007

Writing: A True Confession

Today's Sunday Scribbling prompt is to write about writing. The following is a true confession...

About half of my “professional time” is devoted to arranging words into a coherent form. People who read articles I’ve written or hear speeches I’ve composed often ask how I do it, thinking there is some great secret. I honestly don’t know how I do it for I hated English in High School. The excuses I used to get out of class were the only bits of creativity I showed at the time. I didn’t do much better in college. It was a miracle that I got through English 101. Going into the end of my first semester, I’d assumed I was doomed and would be booted out of college and end up in the military or the French Foreign Legion. I skipped the class so many times that the professor hardly knew me. But for some crazy reason, after having resigned my fate to failing my first semester, I decided to take the comprehensive English exam that was given by the University to all 101 students. You had to pass an exam consisting of three parts to get through the class. I would have easily failed, if my scored depended only on the grammar part, but there were two required essays for which I received high marks. I could always tell a story and that’s what I did and to my surprise, those grading the papers were impressed. Since only about a third of the folks in my class had passed the comprehensive exams on the first go around (you got two chances before having to repeat the class), my professor passed me. She gave me a D, and it would be the last one I received in school. English 102 involved a research paper and I sailed through that class. By the time I had finished college, I was still struggling with grammar and the basics, but I always had a secretary or girlfriend to proof my text and to clean up my language (well, not cleaning it up in the way your probable thinking of, but to make sure verbs and subjects generally agreed with one another). Then I went back to grad school. I loved it, but I also realize right away that my language skills were a determent.

After two years of study in a three year program, I was making okay grades, but I felt I needed a break. I sought out an internship and moved to Nevada for a year. During this sabbatical from school, I decided to go back to the beginning and I enrolled once again in an English 101 class. By this point in my life, I knew the importance of language and immersed myself. After the first assignment, the professor asked me to stay after class. “What are you doing here?” she asked as she waved my paper in the air. “If can write like this, you shouldn’t be in this class.” I told her my goals for the class and she agreed to work with me, being tougher on grammar and the basics. For the next four months, I wrote weekly papers for the class. When she assigned a paper about Woodstock (this was in the 80s, so Woodstock was still in our psyche), I impressed her with my knowledge of history. My essay tied together the community’s past link to weapon manufactures (referring to the wood stocks used on rifles), with the anti-war movement of the 60s. My professor praised my paper to the whole class, saying that she learned new things about the event, only to be embarrassed when I confessed to making the whole thing up. She never said our assignment had to be factual. On another occasion, I found just how conservative the 80s had become when I interpreted the writings of Stephen King through a Marxist lens. It was satire and still think that was my best writing for the class, but my fellow students got so hung up on Marx that they failed to catch the humor. Perhaps I should have mentioned Gaucho.

After a year in Nevada, I headed back east to finish school. My last year was easier, and I found that without doing any extra work, I was easily earning 4.0s. Retaking freshman English had been a good investment. Still I occasionally struggle with details and am a terrible proof reader of my own work, but as this blog is testifies, I no longer hate writing.


  1. This makes me want to go back and take classes that I didn't get as much out of as I would now!!
    Great lesson in this story. Best, JP

  2. It's funny college writing classes made me abandon writing for years.

  3. I always treated my essays in English class like creative writing assignments in high school. Either I enjoyed the challenge, or was too lazy to complete my reading assignments. Perhaps, I had my attention on more important teenage matters, such as baseball or trying to girls to notice me. But I would usually write an entire essay based on the few paragraphs I skimmed, along the lecture notes. Amazingly, I received straight A's on all my papers. My teachers marveled at the unique takes I had on a given topic. Little did they know I was completely full of it.

    Fortunately, I took my studies a little more seriously in college. I was not about to risk flunking out and being forced to join the French Foreign Legion.

    That is a great line, btw. I just had to use it. Today, failing students are ticketed to Iraq unless they have connections.

  4. Your use of the rarely used semicolon is a constant amazement.

  5. Nice reminder that its never too late to start over, or, trite but true: its never too late to be who you really are.

  6. Jane, my first two years out of college was spent reading all the books that I didn't get to read because I was working 40 hours a week and going to school

    Mistress, I didn't take any writing classes in college except 101/102. After I graduated, I did go back and take a college level creative non-fiction class (which I loved)

    Herb, I was just after Vietnam--I still had to register for the draft, the military was a real threat (like today)

    Murf, Thanks, I often try to use them when I comment in your blog!

    Nonizamboni (interesting name, does it have something to do with a scraper for ice skating rinks). Yeah, it's never too late, but I wasn't fifty then :)

  7. Your Woodstock story reminds me of the time in high school that a friend of mine wrote a book report on a book that didn't exist.

    Someone in class betrayed him and told the teacher. But she defended him, saying she was pretty sure she'd heard of the book and may have even read it :)

  8. If you'd told me in high school that I'd be teaching college English now, I'd have laughed at you. I always planned to be a French teacher, writing novels on the side, eventually earning enough money to retire to a writer-style cottage on the beach, where I'd feed dolphins as I wrote Great American Novel after Great American Novel...

    It didn't exactly work out that way, and although I haven't given up my dream of writing at least ONE great American novel, I spend most my time writing boring academic stuff now.

    I never cared about grammar one way or the other, but I somehow managed to use it well enough to get As. I learned most of what I know about grammar through teaching French, no in any English class.

    I still haven't fed any dolphins. =o(

  9. Einstein was an average student. Not that I am saying you are Einstein..:D

  10. English was my fav subject in school and college, aced all the classes so why am I not writing longer blog entries?

  11. English Lit was my favorite class; I need to go back and take history, and pay more attention there!!

  12. Bone, writing a book review of a book that doesn't exist, why didn't I think of that! I could have done it for the Southern Reading Challenge!

    Jaded, you had some far out goals there--I've never feed porpoises, but I've been within a few inches of them when they come up beside a boat and swim along with you.

    Gautami, And why wouldn't you say that I'm an Einstein--after all, I can make pretty good bagels (out west there was an Einstein bagel place)

    Karen, and why don't you write longer entries?

    Kenju, history was always my favorite class.

  13. Sage I confess to hating English in high school and college before they suggested I leave. One day i hope to return and earn my way through 101.

  14. I know of many people who refer to their first years of college stating that they would gladly take a redo. It is amazing what life teaches us about learning.

  15. Pat, I'm sure you'll sail through it today, just as I'm sure my teachers would roll in their graves if they saw my list of publications.

    Kontan, that was me! But it was only my first semester, I went from a 1.7 to a 3.5.

  16. Funny story. Wish I'd like English and Literature better when I had the opportunity, but... Enjoyed your post!

  17. I have thought that if I were to go back to school, I would take some English classes. Like you, I enjoy writing stories but am terrible at the grammar part.