Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What My English Teachers Gave Me

Eons ago, in a misty, neon-drenched time called the late 1980’s, I was a mullet-headed teenager in a high school classroom.  I wore the same jeans every day, my high-tops had holes in their soles and all I cared about was goofing off.  In my morning English class, as a daily classroom assignment, we had to write from a prompt on the blackboard.  I was tentative at first; the prompts were a little hackneyed and junior-high, and I better things to do like ignoring adults and letting my grades slip.  After a week of toying with the chore, which needed to be done the first thing in the morning, I took to it like a puppy to your favorite sock.
Within a month, my journal entries were longer and more detailed.  I titled them and kept table of contents.  I wrote essays and jokes and stopped caring about the prompts.  I made my own prompts.  I read some journaling to friends.  I got attention.  I think I got a girlfriend from that attention.  Writing was everything.  I knew I wasn’t that good; I didn’t have the discipline and I certainly was not well–read in high school.  But writing kept the ideas stirring.  I was in love with the process.  It was all by hand in those days.  Just me and a pencil.  After the school year was over I have to buy my own notebook and keep going.  I soon learned that choosing a pencil was a ridiculous idea; most of my old stuff is nearly faded away.  I switched to a Papermate black pen.  (Papermate’s require less force than Bic’s and I hold my pen like a lefty).  After I got my perfect pen/paper combo, I wrote every week for the next ten years. 
Before I graduated, I had two more English teachers take notice of my scribbles.  First I was singled out as exceptionally organized in my class essays, and then they complimented my maturing style.  That’s all I needed.  Combine that with my first reading of The Catcher In the Rye, a book my young brain was convinced it could write, and writing became an integral and deeply inseparable part of me.  My ego and my innate need to ‘get it out on paper’ were off to the races.
I’ve never been published.  Almost no one has ever read me.  Outside of college, there has been no editing or review.  I write this today because even though it hasn’t earned me a dime and probably never will, I don’t think I will ever stop writing.  I can’t.  It’s my other brain, my other arm.  I can’t function properly without sorting it out on paper or a keyboard.  
I filled ten notebooks before I moved to computers.  I have no idea how many words that might be.  I don’t know how to how much time and patience and frustration and overall silliness that translates.   I know the finished books, half-finished books, the script, the poetry, and the whatever sits in my journals in the last nine years is just over half a million words. (Thanks, Word Count.)  Maybe that means nothing at all.  Maybe no one will ever read it.  Truth be told, they could all use some polish.  It used to hurt a little.  But you know what I did?  I wrote about that, too.
My English teachers introduced me to a method of staying attached to the world around me.  It’s as if another sense is involved; one that interprets sensory input and records it while still reliving it.  It is my brain at work and on vacation.  Books were coal for this fire. Reading taught me how to relax and breathe.  I sipped information and art rather than shotgunning it through a face-hole.  When I’m done with a book, I have a new array of themes and ideas and vocabulary.  I don’t need to learn the lesson.  The journey to the end was the point of it all.
I can think clearly because I write.  I organize my thoughts on the fly; I outline as I wash dishes or walk my dog.  The most amazing thing writing has given me?  Therapy.  When emotions are crooked and broken and when you truly feel on the cusp of stupidity or insanity, writing always gives a perspective.  For free.  Your subconscious is allowed to come forward and tell you if you are okay, if you are whining, or if you just need to shut up and watch cartoons for a while. Another human is a nice substitute, but every person has their limit of how much of your crap they can take.  Writing has no restrictions.  You can keep going as long as you need to.
Now I have a stack of notebooks and a My Documents file full of stuff.  I can look back if I feel the need.  I don’t just remember the events in my life; I can remember how I felt at the time. The minute details; the bills that were due, the temporary worries, the bits of joy and appreciation of my children are all there.  You don’t need these things, but when you are in the process of working things out, it’s helpful to have shadows from the past who figured out how to press on.  I love reading an old story and not remembering even writing the thing.  Who is this character?  Why would I set a plot in Chicago?  Who is this female character based on? Where’d the talking goat come from?
It all came from me at some point.  I was just working out some things.
I would not have had this in my life without someone telling me to write it all down.  It’s that simple. They’re called English teachers and professors, but they are your reading and writing coaches.  They give you a few basic tools to learn how to listen and think. If used correctly, these tools are powerful and wonderful.  They become necessary.  They become a part of you.

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