Today I am a writing instructor.
But if you'd have asked me what I wanted to do with my life when I was 21, the last thing I'd have said was that I wanted to become a teacher of writing.
If we're being honest, I've always hated writing as a school subject. If we're being really honest, I'd reveal that the only time I ever got a failing grade on my high school report card was in English during the unit we were supposed to write research papers.
I mean, I hate writing. I really despise it. I don't mean back then—I mean right now.° Even today, I'd rather take any test (no matter how long or difficult) than write any paper (no matter how short and easy). Writing well is truly difficult, and I don't know that it ever gets substantially easier.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Let's flash back to the fall of 2004. I'm 23 years old and a sophomore in college.°
Me in 2004.
The year before, as a freshman, I'd printed out a listing of every major my school had to offer, and I'd gone over it with a Sharpie, marking off the ones I knew I didn't want to do. Veterinary science? Out. Mechanical engineering? Nope.
Occasionally, when I didn't know much about a major, I'd do some reading before ditching it, which is how I got this:
- Industrial design
- Global supply chain management
- Exercise science
A few times, when I thought one was a contender, I'd take the intro class to see how I liked it. That's how I learned that film studies and advertising and international relations weren't for me.
At the end of the year, there was only one major left on my page: English. See, I hadn't marked it off because I've always loved reading. Writing I despise, but reading is so lovely that the idea that I could major in it and somehow make a living at it kept it on the list while every other option was systematically axed.
With no other major left to choose, I found myself in a tricky position.
But wait! I'm getting ahead of myself again. You need to know why I hate writing so much to understand why this was a tricky position.
Flashback within a Flashback!!
It's the 90s! NBC's hit sitcom Friends is killing it in the ratings (though my mom won't let me watch it). Dave Matthews Band is dominating the airwaves, and Bill Clinton is the president but has just been impeached.
And this is how we all dressed when we were slaying vampires!
I am a teenager, and I think I know everything. But what I really know for sure is that writing is the worst subject in school. At least in math you know (a) that there is a correct answer, (b) that you can work the problem backwards to know if your answer is correct, and (c) that the back of the textbook has the answers for all the odd-numbered problems.
In writing, you never know if what you're doing is right. I personally was constantly frustrated because I never knew
- whether the ideas I had were good and original or tired and dumb
- whether the words I used to express my ideas were the right ones or not
- whether the commas I used were in the right places at all.
But most of all, I was frustrated that I could never predict in advance what grade I would get on an assignment. Sometimes I would work really hard on an essay, and I would believe in what I was writing and how—only to wind up with a C on the assignment. Other times I would put it all off until the last minute, dash off something in five minutes, and turn it in—only to get an A.
The effort I put in didn't seem to correlate at all to the grade I received. The process I followed didn't either. It was all random.
There were two problems with my success or failure in writing being random:
- It meant that when I got an A on something, I couldn't take any pride in it because I wasn't sure I deserved it. When I got a D on something I couldn't really feel guilty and commit to do better, because I had no idea how to do that.
- It meant that I was completely dependent on the teacher to tell me how I did. In other subjects, I always had a pretty clear idea of how well I'd done before I ever got the grade. Math quiz I didn't study for? Yeah, I know I didn't do so hot. Biology exam I made flash cards for? Aced it. But with writing, I'd work hard all night on the paper (or not), and then turn it in with no idea what grade I would get. It seemed dumb to hope for the best when I knew that my actions had no bearing on the outcome.
Maybe I can explain how I felt with a metaphor. Choose whichever appeals more to you:
Sports Metaphor! Imagine you play basketball for the varsity team. You practice every day, have done so every day for years and years, and generally you're good—good enough to make the varsity team. But what if the amount of practice you do has absolutely no bearing on how well you do during a game? Sometimes you play like a champ; sometimes you play like a chump, and it has nothing to do with your preparation. It's random, so you can't improve on purpose, and you can't guarantee your good luck will continue.
Non-sports metaphor! Have you ever watched Project Runway and gotten so mad when week after week a contestant keeps winning but it's clear they don't know what they are doing right? It's not like they have a vision and can articulate why their decisions are great—they just stumble accidentally into greatness over and over. Even when the judges ask them about why they did something, all they say is, "Um, I don't know. I guess I just, um, like tulle?" Oooh, I just hate those designers!°
It's demoralizing, right? Knowing that you have the potential to be very good at what you do, but having no ability to do it on purpose is a recipe for anxiety. For me, it wasn't so much that I was afraid of doing poorly. I generally got pretty good grades on writing assignments. But I had to chalk it up to luck, not to effort, and so I had to constantly face the possibility that my luck would run out and that I'd be powerless to bring it back.
I'm getting anxious just writing this, remembering about how terrible it felt.
Okay, so in the late 90s I realized that writing is the worst, and I just checked out. I avoided writing assignments if at all possible, and when I couldn't avoid them, I put them off till the last minute.°
Back to the Future!
So it's 2004, I'm in college (again), and I hate writing. I hate that I can't do it good on purpose, and I hate that when I do it, I don't know whether what I made is good until a teacher tells me so.
So far I've managed to avoid almost all writing assignments, but my choose-a-major project has just wrapped up, and the only major left on my list is the one where you do the most writing: English.
This next part is absolutely true: I said a prayer. I said, "Dear God, I'm going to declare English as my major, but you know that I know that writing is the worst and I have a lot of anxiety about it. But it's the only major left, so, you know, if this is a bad idea, maybe you could stop me? If not, I'm just going to go with it, and hopefully it'll work out. Amen."
And I did declare it my major, and I signed up for some literature classes, and I was super excited about reading all sorts of classics and talking about them in class, but in the back of my mind was always the lingering knowledge that, come the end of the semester, there'd be a big ol' paper to write.
And I would panic and put it off and stay up all night eating Cheez-its and chugging Coke and write the paper.° And I would have no idea if my luck had run out until I got the grade back, and then the fear would subside and could enjoy reading more books the next semester until the term paper deadline got closer and closer…
It was an emotional roller coaster, let me tell you. Most days, being an English major felt like being an astronaut, like I was the luckiest person in the world to get to do what I did. But always in the back of my mind was the knowledge that it could become a real Apollo 13 situation at any moment.
A 90s film of a 70s event: talk about a flashback within a flashback!
A Light Goes On
And then something amazing happened. I went to bed one night in my dorm room, and the next morning, when I woke up, that spot in my brain that was usually empty—the slot that was supposed to contain the information on how to make my writing good on purpose—was suddenly full. It was like someone had flipped on a light switch in my soul, like I suddenly had the missing piece of the puzzle I'd been working on for 18 years.
Suddenly, all my anxiety about writing was gone.
Sports metaphor callback! Suddenly, I could hit the basketball court confident that I could play well on purpose, that I could practice and improve deliberately.
Non-sports metaphor callback! Suddenly, I could dominate the runway with my designs, not by luck but by the conscious application of my skills, by the intentional defeat of my weaknesses.
Suddenly, I no longer needed a teacher to tell me whether my writing was good—I could know for myself when I turned in my work that it was effective because I had the key to understanding the difference between good writing and bad writing. What was opaque had now become transparent.
This isn't to say that I was suddenly a great writer. Oh no—putting words together in sensical ways was, and still remains, immensely challenging and energy-sapping (I'm chugging a Coke while I write these very words 15 years later). I'd still rather take a test than write a paper.
No, the thing that had changed wasn't that I was suddenly a great writer. It was just that I could look at a piece of writing and make a judgment about its quality. I could arrange words on a page myself and then read over them and say, "This is good/bad writing because" and then articulate why it was so. And being able to articulate whether writing was good or bad meant that I could improve it on purpose.
Worst Job Ever → Best Job Ever?
It's not an overstatement to say that that realization changed the direction of my whole life.
I felt so much relief at my biggest anxiety just disappearing overnight that I soon after got a job as a writing tutor so that I could help my peers be released from their own anxieties about writing. I also got serious about maybe going to graduate school because I no longer had to fear all the papers I'd have to write.
Flash forward: I became a writing instructor. Crazy, right? It's as if I grew up saying I never wanted to be the president, and then one day I became the president.
So what's the moral of the story? How about these:
- Struggling with or hating writing does not disqualify you from becoming a good writer. I mean, I hate it—but I have become pretty good at it.
- Struggling in school does not make you a bad student. I dropped out of college, but now I have a PhD. I teach college.
- Writing well isn't an inborn talent. But it is a skill that can be mastered over time. Look around: you don't see any babies born with pencils in their hands.
- Understanding the difference between good and bad writing is a prerequisite to producing good writing on purpose. Some people produce good writing on accident, and we rightfully despise them (after buying their books anyway). Some people pay editors to make their bad writing good.
- Understanding the difference between good and bad writing doesn't make writing easy. In fact, I think it makes it harder.
So what's the secret I realized that fateful morning all those years ago?
The Golden Rule! [link to golden rule article]