Learning to Write

After I graduated from a prestigious academic high school, I knew one thing for certain. Never in the future would I write anything voluntarily. Because of the way “composition”--the term my authoritarian English teachers used instead of “writing”-- had been taught, I considered every attempt to craft my thoughts into words as additional proof of linguistic incompetence. And these irascible prose mavens weren’t reluctant to lay out every shred of evidence proving that inadequacy. When I heard them say “composition” in almost reverential tones, I cringed. Early on, I thought about the implications of composing. Musicians do it. So do chefs. And, in a way, architects compose buildings from the material choices available. In English class, I was supposed to assemble groups of words to compose a coherent thought called a “sentence.” Surviving that task, I’d be expected to go on to “paragraphs,” then “essays.” My writing habits, according to my “mentors,” made that achievement as likely as my writing an opera for the Met.

What I was expected to produce with the vocabulary at my disposal was a linguistic structure similar architecturally to a Quonset hut. Simple and practical, it was bare-bones thought uncorrupted by imagination. Absent in classroom discussions was the consideration of style. That I could somehow subtly insert into my work some twist that expressed the inner me, that had some originality would have been unthinkable. If I even began to flirt with that temptation, I quickly retreated, because my instructors had brainwashed me that imagination was the enemy of correctness. They dedicated themselves to an endless crusade to root out problems with grammar and usage. To them, student writing provided opportunities to perform deep surgery on everything produced. They clearly gained perverse satisfaction from ceaseless incisions.

I don’t remember their sharing examples of effective, purposeful writing that appeared anywhere. Did they themselves ever read or write anything for personal enjoyment or satisfaction? I was pretty sure of that answer. I was convinced they contented themselves with ruling the domain of mechanics, in which content was considered an unwelcome alien. Their mission was to vanquish the marauders of dangling participles, split infinitives, and misplaced modifiers. So, whenever I turned in a paper, I resigned myself to its being savaged by a gloating, red-pencil wielding maniac searching as always for the holy grail of technical perfection. Finding it, I was certain, would have deeply disappointed them.

My returned papers resembled exercises in abstract art, with their squiggles, and X’s, and crossings out. Though I had expected nothing more, I was always disappointed. My aversion to personal writing increased, magnified by the certainty I was improvement-proof. I suppose what rescued me from complete hostility to disciplining ideas into words was the fact I was a habitual reader. With encouragement from my family, I came to appreciate style--to admire what good writers achieved through their skillful uses of language. Still, while admiring these efforts, I didn’t try even tentatively to use them as models. Hadn’t my limitations been pointed out repeatedly?

Then, in my freshman comp class in college, the cast and the storyline changed. I had a freshman comp instructor who, among other principles, emphasized that writing has a purpose, and, if judged, it should be on whether it achieves its intention. Was the humor piece funny? Were the instructions about assembling that scale, uninspiring as they were, easily followed? Did the essay cause the reader to think? Mistakes in grammar and usage weren’t sins, he emphasized. They were simply distractions that should be picked up and corrected prior to the final draft. Observing conventions promotes readability and effectiveness. Correctness doesn’t overwhelm content in importance? Whoa! That attitude amounted to heresy, but I was a gradual convert. Ingrained habits are difficult to purge, but I concentrated increasingly on the substance of what I was writing rather than, from the start, trying to make it technically pristine.

Early in the semester, the instructor assigned everyone in class to write an editorial for submission to the college newspaper. Those printed would earn extra credit. Still recovering from four years of “thou shalt nots,” I didn’t welcome the opportunity, but an assignment was a requirement that could not be respectfully declined. The editorial I worked on urged members of the campus community to participate in an upcoming blood drive. It was a cause worth advocating for, so I shelved self-doubts enough to plunge into it. My editorial was printed. I was overwhelmed by incredulity, astonishment, and disbelief. After the initial shock diminished, my instructor reviewed with me virtues of what I had written as well as a few vices. Everything he said struck me as valid, but, more important, helpful. I came away from our conference realizing that correcting gaffes was the last thing he wanted to emphasize. Rather, he focused on positives that could empower me as a writer. For example, he mentioned that my conversational tone was more persuasive than a preachy one. He shared his mantra with me: Write. Revise. Edit. Repeat as needed. Constant focus on editing impedes the flow of ideas. What was said at our meeting completed my conversion. Encouraged by that initial success, I began regularly to write editorials for the campus paper. Elements of what I’d later realize was my style began to solidify. I’d use humor when it was unexpected. And instead of addressing an issue directly at the beginning, I approached it indirectly, my way of starting off with a curveball rather than a fastball. I was always happy when a student or a faculty member wanted to discuss something I had written. With me, the guy who, not long before, doubted he could write a letter salutation without screwing it up? And when they called me a “writer,” I began to hope that ultimately, I’d deserve the title, because it’s one not to be used idly. In my thoughts, I realized that earning it subtly requires taking on many roles: observer, interpreter, analyst, connector, critic, innovator, to name a few. And skill in assuming them isn’t immediate. It grows incrementally. Language and writing reveal the meanings of life. They supply substance to what otherwise might be fleeting and transitory, unacknowledged and underacknowledged. Using these resources available to us can be demanding. It can require deep probing and, yes, frequent revision. But finding out who we are and what we think and what we value is completely worth the effort. The tools for communication are there if we want to use them.

Mort MaimonAuthor