Friday, January 20, 2012
When I was in high school, I was invited to attend a summer writing class that would include the so-called "most gifted" writers in that sprawling bureaucracy known as the Los Angeles Unified School District. Having designated yours truly as the sole and supposedly lucky nominee for our high school, members of the English department clearly expected me to be nothing but delighted by the news. Instead, I was resentful, completely against the idea of having to spend the entire summer in a classroom with a bunch of kids I didn't know and wouldn't see again. If this was the reward for being a good writer, maybe I had miscalculated in my efforts to excel in that area.
Of course, my parents were thrilled by what they saw as a great opportunity, and they insisted I attend. I complied with the most negative attitude imaginable, unhappy that I would be writing papers instead of swimming, going to the beach, and devouring every book I could get my hands on whilst lounging in my favorite air-conditioned corner of our home. All of my friends, excellent students in their own right, were free as the proverbial birds in trees to do all the fun things I should have been doing with them. I, on the other hand, was relegated to four walls, a desk, and a chalkboard...penalized for a talent I took for granted. What an honor. Blecch.
I did end up meeting a girl I really enjoyed, and we spent many covert moments passing a silly poem back and forth that began, "There's nothing so pleasant as a day in June, except...". As I recall, the first entry (hers) was "...a nun, buried in a sand dune." (Can you guess that my new friend attended Catholic school?) My oh-so-clever follow-up, I believe, was something about a child choking on a silver spoon. And so on (and on and on). You get the drift. Both of us were equally delighted to be there, and we expressed our displeasure with great maturity. Or not.
But let me proceed to the real point. It was in this class that the first B of my English career appeared at the top of my handwritten page. At first I was appalled, then humiliated, then indignant. How could I, arguably the best writer in my school, if not the entire universe (I was a modest child), receive anything but an A for my efforts? What was the guy thinking? What kind of crazy was he? And what was the world coming to, anyway?
When I went up after class and addressed these questions to a surprisingly patient teacher, he explained that my paper had wonderful mechanics, excellent vocabulary, solid ideas, and solid support for those ideas. What it lacked, he explained, was ME. I was pretty much phoning my product in, and he wasn't buying. Happily, this shocked me to the point that I actually heard him, and the message hit home. I was simply giving my teachers what they wanted, writing to meet their expectations, going through the motions. And strangely enough, it had never occurred to me to do more. These were just assignments, and I wasn't investing anything in them at all...no passion, no flair, and no creativity.
My friend, by the way, received an A on her paper. Reading it, I understood why. In fact, I learned the most valuable lesson of my writing career that summer...not to put pen to paper until I was feeling something...a proviso which applied to anything and everything I intended to put my name on, assigned or otherwise, essays as well as poetry. Writing from that place of feeling was not only possible, but necessary. The good stuff started in the gut, not the head.
Of course, I don't always write from that place. It comes and goes, even now. Sometimes the passion just isn't there, or it's buried so deeply I can't come up with it. That's when I use my head and not my heart.
It always shows.