It started in Law School in 1988. I had just read Scott Turrow’s book, “1L” and was determined to write about my day-to-day experiences as a first year law student at Syracuse University. I bought a blank journal and began to write.
Wait…no actually it began in 6th grade when I wrote a story for my English class called “Sir Groofelis of Biglit”. It was a short story that had more to do with the way I wrote the letters than the content of the story. (Although, you can see from this picture, that I ended up typing
it at some point).
And it was followed by a short memoir about the years I spent at Camp Longacres, a horse riding camp in my home town. I had attended for many summers already (it would be 10 by the time I stopped going) and I was surprised at how many things I could remember about the people and events and I wanted to write them down so that I wouldn’t forget. Those were the times I was the happiest as a child each summer.
At some point during my camp days, I wrote a fictional story about a girl and a horse, of course.
Ok, this picture is a little embarrassing. It’s me dressed for a “Sock Hop” (throwback). But I’m sitting on the table where I used to type the book.
Although I’m sure it was inspired by all the horse stories I was reading, like many young girls, what I remember most about it was the drawing I did on the cover page. It was a girl on a horse jumping a jump. I did it in colored pencil, and I think it was copied from one of my horse drawing books.
It’s not important that these were written well, which I’m sure they were not. It was about the sheer joy of writing them. I felt compelled to tell a story and I sat down and did it being completely absorbed in the process.
Then, as so often happens with formal schooling, I found out that I was NOT good at writing. It happened in high school my sophomore year. I took an independent study course called “Classic Theater”. There was a PBS series on by that name. Each week, there would be a different play presented. “Julius Caesar”, “The Rivals” and others. We watched the play, and met the next day to discuss it. Then we had to write a paper about it. We had different teachers each week from the various English teachers in the High School. But I only remember one teacher, Mr. Schultz. I wrote a paper and was feeling quite good about it. Well, a few days later, we got our papers back and I got a 78%. I don’t think I’d ever gotten a “C” before. I was mortified. He was quite critical of my writing and I was devastated. You might say that “C” isn’t bad, but I had had two brothers go through school several years before me and they were model students. I always felt I had to live up to their standards, and the last thing I wanted was to seem less of a person. (There will be more on that at some point, I’m sure).
Up until that point, I think my writing style could be described as “quantitative” and “regurgitating” meaning that I always wrote in volumes, without much concern for quality with copious amounts of quotes to make it seem that I was writing more than I was. But I’d gotten good grades and didn’t see any reason to do differently. My reaction to this devastation says something about my character, I think, because after a proper period of pouting and crying, I decided to “show him”. I was terrified, though, because I didn’t want to get bad grades. I don’t think he taught any of the other plays, but I did have a chance to “show him” the following year when I purposely chose him for American Literature class.
I don’t think I HAD to choose him, and some people would say I was a fool to do that, since he was known as one of the toughest teachers, but when I’m challenged by something or someone, I NEED to conquer it.
I wrote papers and did my work in the class and did improve my writing gradually. It came time for the final paper of the year, and we had to choose a book, from a list he prepared, and write a long paper. Great. I’d show him what I could do. Did I pick something I was interested in, and could really enjoy writing about? No, not me. Instead, I chose his favorite author, F. Scott Fitzgerald and “The Great Gatsby”. What was I thinking? Well, I was thinking this would be a great way to show him that I’d learned a lot and was worthy of a good grade.
I remember sitting in the big arm chair in the living room that was always my mother’s reading chair, with the card table, and the book, and a typewriter, forcing myself to read it. I went to the library in town as well as at school and took lots and lots of notes, with long quotes that I could use to show how much I was doing. I typed with 2-finger abandon. I also remember listening to The Beach Boys Greatest Hits album as I worked.
The paper was plenty long enough and I felt good about it, but I hated the book and didn’t understand it. It seemed so dark and depressing, but it was his favorite author and I thought that would help.
When we turned in our papers, we had to partner up and exchange them. We had to proofread each others’ paper. When it came time to turn the paper in I was excited and nervous. What would he say? Would I have redeemed myself for my earlier mess writing about the play? (As I write this, I think of little Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” and the story he wrote about wanting a Red Rider BB Gun).
If you’ve ever done school work and then waited with sweaty palms for the teachers to pass back a test, or a paper, to see what your grade is, you know what I was feeling. I so desperately wanted to do well. I get butterflies just writing about it.
Of course, when the day came to get our papers back, I was in a near frenzy, for sure. He handed them back. I don’t remember anything else about that class. I turned immediately to the last page to see what the grade was…”A-” (I think. I don’t even remember the actual grade). What I remember is that I HAD improved. But, his comments took some of the joy out of it, because he obviously knew that I had chosen something that I didn’t enjoy, and that I really hadn’t understood the material. The comments he wrote are long out of my memory, but I remember it as a bittersweet moment.
So, as I reflected on that experience, years later, I remember saying that he was the best English teacher I had. He made me work. I did learn. But, now, as I recall these events for the first time in many many years, I am struck by how naive I was, and how I was more concerned with how it looked, rather than how it really was. (That’s a recurring theme I’m likely to return to).
As you’ll see from posts over time, I hope to share with you writing works-in-progress. I’ve been working on a couple of novels; one teen fiction, one graphic novel of a sorts, and one nonfiction biography/archive of my father’s long art career. I hope you’ll enjoy them and will help me to improve the writing with your comments.
Note: It turns out, that in a folder amongst my childhood things, I found the folder that had all the papers I wrote for that course. (That’s where that picture from above came from). I did write another paper for Mr. Schultz. It was on “She Stoops To Conquer”. His comments were much more favorable and I received the grade of 90%. (I really didn’t remember this at all while i was writing this post. Funny what time does to your memory. Let that be a lesson.)