Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Knowing, the Fear, and the Curiosities of Writing.

In high school, armed with meager babysitting budgets, my friends and I liked to get horrifying $3 lunches from a tiny Chinese restaurant near the grocery store. They were gross and made of God knows what, but we could afford them and that was all that mattered.

I was probably about 17 at the time, mouth full of mushy orange chicken and rice, when I cracked open my fortune cookie and found this:

"You are a lover of words. Some day you will write a book."

I laughed, but not really. You know those laughs - more like a hmm or a huh as a way to express the feeling of "imagine that"? One of those. It was an agreeing, yet doubtful sort of laugh. A "yeah, sure," kind of laugh. But I tucked that little slip of paper in my wallet before I'd even finished chewing.

It was the only fortune cookie that had ever meant something to me.

Author Origin Story By then, I'd already written countless books. Somewhere in the depths of my mom's basement were boxes full of construction paper haphazardly stapled together and riddled with stick figures and nonsensical plot lines. As a child, I fancied myself an author.

Stories floated through my mind at all hours of the day - both awake and asleep.

I had recurring dreams with details so clear that I can still remember them vividly 30 years later. I was also a killer daydreamer in school. I'd tune out the boring history lessons with ease and replace them with romantic story lines, or I'd build little characters out of sticky tack in the hidden confines of my desk. I used to make my Grandparents sit in their rickety lawn chairs and play the part of my rapt audience while I picked up stones from the walkway that lead to their door and told them the stories hidden within. Each stone had a previous life as another object (apparently), and I regaled my audience of two with the sagas of how they came to be stones. I was absolutely brimming with stories to tell.

In fifth grade, there was a standardized writing test that I KNEW...without a doubt, knew I was going to slay. Not only was I going to take that test down, I was going to be given some sort of award, or it would be suggested that I skip a couple grades of English because my stories were so good.

I'll never forget the day the letter was sent home to my mom to let her know that I had failed - epically failed. My submitted work had apparently been full of carelessness. I mixed up paragraphs when I copied my final draft over from my first one. My sentence structure was a mess. I'd start describing a dreamy, artistic moment that I could see so clearly in my head, but I'd get distracted by it and fumble over the words needed to express it. Maybe it was being eleven and all, but I didn't care that those were hurdles I could learn to jump. I instead took it as a sign that I was talent-less - the state said so. I was an awful writer, and compared to my peers, I was resting at the bottom of the barrel.

Childhood booksThat feeling followed me through the rest of my schooling. My stories fell by the wayside. What's the point in being full of stories if the state educational system says you're unable to get them out?

I won't get into the ways school failed me during those years (where was the rehabilitation?), but I think to say that a standardized test crushed my spirit is clear enough.

Instead of believing that I was primed to write, I suspected that I was actually awful at it and that because I was so bad at writing, school would always be a struggle for me. So I let schoolwork take a back seat to my social life and I did the bare minimum from then on. I draaaagged my way through that 11th grade English Regents exam and all the formulated essays required to practice for it. We were told as a class that it was nearly impossible to do well on, and knowing my history with writing exams, I was convinced I'd fail. So I was shocked when my report card showed up displaying an 86 for my exam grade. Not award worthy, but not even near failure.

It was a start, but when I started college I noticed that I was terrified of writing again. Surely, a professor or a teacher of that level would instantly see how dumb I was. I would get so worked up about my essays that I wouldn't go to class and I wouldn't turn them in. I didn't want my classmates reading them and critiquing them because of course they were awful. Somewhere in my psyche I had decided that failing because I chose to fail was better than failing after I'd tried not to. The fear was a trench that ran deep - carved eight, nine years prior by a fifth grade test. And so, it took me three tries to be brave enough in English 101. On that third try, though? I walked away with an A.

I was a pre-Elementary Education major (technically, Humanities and Social Sciences with a seamless transfer into Elementary Education after two years), and there are a lot of tests and certifications required along the way. In order to be accepted into the EE program, we had to pass a test with a certain grade - the name of which I no longer remember. It had a heavy writing element that was graded much like the 11th grade regents exam, and I was nervous. My Eng101 A carried me through, though....and not only did I pass it, but I got a perfect score.

In my 200 level English classes, I started to find a little confidence again. That confidence poured into other courses, and I found it increasingly easy to walk away with A's.

On the first day of my final semester, a fellow student saw my class schedule out on my desk and said, "Oh man, you have Dr. P for English? Transfer. He's a nightmare - no one does well with him." Cool cool - thanks for reactivating my writing fear.

Only, I quickly realized that Dr. P was a man with zero tolerance for apathy and disinterest, and if you came to class willing to read, write, and discuss, it was not only easy to pass - he would personally help you succeed. (Writing this made me wistful for those days so I googled him, and you'll see the same sentiments repeated in student reviews.) I learned a lot from him in the short time he was my teacher, and for the first time, I was sorry to see an English class come to an end.

In May of 2006, as I finished my final exam and handed it to him, he asked if he could walk me out to the hall. He took a moment to congratulate me on graduating, and then he said, "I just wanted you to know that you are an excellent student of English, and I hope you never let it go."

So did I let it go? Well, that's the rub - life rolled on. I was engaged to be married, set to move to Charlotte, and unsure of what my next steps would be. I had been accepted to an EE program at UNCC, but then decided not to register once I realized that I wasn't sure if teaching was my path. I was (and am) certified as a Teaching Assistant and I did complete a Humanities degree, but I kind of wanted to live life for a while before I settled into a specific role.

And so came a house, a wedding, a baby, a move, another baby, and then another, and then a dog. Somehow, thirteen years have passed since Dr. P said those words to me.

It wasn't the last time we spoke, however. Five years or so after I graduated, I decided to reach out to him and a few other teachers that had meant a lot to me. I'm not sure why I did it. I was on a recognition spree of some kind and writing emails to people that deserved some praise gave me a sense of purpose at a time when I felt like "just" a mom. I needed to remember other facets of my identity.

I've saved his reply and I read it over sometimes when I'm feeling inadequate.

Hello Jenn!

And I understand busy very well.

How nice of you to write to me. And your well-written message arrived at a good time, just as I am grading papers and trying to wrap things up a bit. Your letter gave me a boost.

You certainly have been busy, but good busy. A marriage, a career, and other good things are coming your way, and you are most deserving.

I thank you for your kind remarks regarding my class. You must understand that you are also a very willing student who, although often quiet, does reflect a genuine interest in your studies. Give me an entire class of hardworking, intelligent, sincere, and determined Jenn ***s and I would be in academic paradise. So give yourself some credit.

Thanks for keeping in touch, and do continue to write as time goes along. I will do my best to reply in a reasonable amount of time.

M. P.

I'm sad to say that I didn't keep in touch, and since his retirement in 2015, I haven't been able to find a new contact for him. And I guess that's okay. There's no real reason for me to keep correspondence with a retired English professor, other than the fact that he gave me more hope and confidence in working with the written word than anything that came before him or since. His words will stay with me regardless.

Now, as my kids have all aged into their school years, I've found myself seeking purpose again. And the one thing that has followed me through all of these life phases, without fail, is writing - my own as well as others'. I've kept blogs and online journals for 18 years now. I've read 40-60 books each year - devouring as much as a mom of three can. I dabble in writing stories and delight in my kids' imaginations. I frequent the library and volunteer in the one in my boys' school.

I love books, and I write to process life, and those truths have remained since my youth. Other interests, ideas, and trends have come and gone, but books have stood the test of time.

It's been hard, though - trying to commit to writing. There's obviously the motherhood balance, but when you haven't taken it as seriously as one takes a career, it's difficult to not only get off the ground, but to have confidence in what you're doing. Dr. P. and my perfect test score certainly bouyed my opinions on my writing ability - as have nearly two decades of blogging and experience with hundreds of books. But that doesn't mean that old fifth grade scar has completely faded, or that it hasn't deepened with the threat of social media trolls and the vast exposure of modern day authorship. I'm self conscious. I still cling to my run-on sentences and have a bad habit of passively structuring even the appropriately sized ones. (Don't go back and point them out, I already know.)

I'm not sure what happened to that fortune cookie paper over the years. It sat in my wallet for at least a decade, but it disappeared somewhere along the way. Probably around the time tiny fortune cookie slips tend to disintegrate. I'm also not sure if my childhood creations will be the only fulfillment of that fortune or not, but that's what I'm here to find out.

In September, I will embark on what I'm calling My Writing Year. I will spend 12 months committing to the study and the act of writing so that I can (once and for all) decide if it might mean something more to my life.

Going back to school is an option, but I hesitate to commit to an English degree without knowing for sure that a writing career is the one I want. What else is there to do with an English degree that will feel worthwhile? What if I actually hate the full process of writing? I can't say that I've ever seen it through long enough to know. So I have questions to seek the answers to, a writing muscle to stretch, and a plan of attack to help me get there.

This summer is for ironing out the details and filling in that trench of fear. Or at least, building a bridge over it.

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