Go Write, Young Man

“They” tell me that your writing only gets better the more often that you do it. I am still not quite sure who “they” are; all I know is that they are people—authors, presumably, or people who have had stuff published—who have some authority over writing and know what works.  And what doesn’t. I can still remember middle school, in which we were just given the open-ended directive to “Write!  Write anything!”  And I frittered that time away.  Some days I would draw stupid advertisements (e.g., “Chemical Wholesaler & Sons’ Fine Ladies’ Clothing”).  Other days I would write notes to people in my “reading journal” that had no relevance to anything school-related whatsoever.  Most of the time I would sit by the window on the foam rubber cushions that the teacher had upholstered using tube tops (this is true) and talk to random classmates about the writing project I was supposedly going to start the next day or next week or sometime. (Motivation has never been my strength.)

Back in elementary school we were taken to this rather smelly computer “lab” which contained a number of those old IBM PCjr “computers,” if that term is really accurate.  As far as I know they only had one program—no, no programs on them; they were used solely for “word processing.”  The cursor was a hideously demonic-looking red “happy face” on a blue screen, and the scary red face would click forward space by space as we would input our pathetic compositions that typically revealed all of the depth of a sidewalk puddle.  My works, not surprisingly, were never much longer than a page, and usually far less than that.  I’d write about a nonexistent cat and how it was squashed flat under a hat, or about Betsy Bapkins who ran out of napkins.  (Rhyming was not my strength either, I guess.)

At the same time there was quickly emerging a Writing to Read lab nerd—Kris, who would write stories that ended up being pages and pages long.  He would triumphantly carry his stack of dot-matrix-printed accordion fan-fold paper to the table in the center of the room and carefully detach the perforated strips along the sides. Showoff. I really wanted to tear his story in half, since of course I could obviously write something far better and longer than that.

Well… I tried, anyway, the next time we were in the lab, and I failed miserably.  I managed to write just under a page–that two-page mark still defied me.  Story structure was clearly not an emphasis in elementary school.  I read books well beyond my grade level all the time, yet the task at hand—extending past a page—still eluded me.

It was a different story when I was at home banging away on our noisy electric Olivetti typewriter.  It smelled like it was on fire every time it was plugged into the wall.  It was perched atop a flimsy green metal stand on casters that my father had dug out of what was surely a trash heap at my grandmother’s house.  Whenever you hit “Backspace,” the entire typewriter shook, causing the structurally unsound stand to jiggle violently from side to side.  That old Olivetti would sputter and clack as I pounded out page after page of nonsense without the aid of so much as a correction ribbon.

I never got error correction down to an exact science, as my grandmother and mother had both learned to do as a necessity, “back in the day.” I would attempt to roll the paper up and neatly daub just the right amount of white-out fluid over my mistake(s), but every single time, I’d end up with correction fluid mountains that legions of consonants could live comfortably upon for generations to come. My problem was my impatience; I thought that, surely (surely!), the white-out had to be dry by the time I rolled the paper back down into the machine.  And sure enough, the little hammer containing the letter “e” or “m” or “q” or “r” would slam up and splatter white-out everywhere–my fingers, my shirt, the keys.  And that always meant it was time to start over.

So at least I created the illusion for myself of going through lots of paper and being constructive, although most of what I would create consisted of short “booklets” and useless forms that I would later fill in myself and file away for future reference.  I loved making up pointless stories about signs and doors and laboratories and motor homes (none of those things are exaggerations), but character development was always lacking.

My biggest accomplishment, unsurprisingly, was a hideous little book that I worked on for days on end about a haunted house that featured a main character named “Blondie” who had a large butt.  It was “bound” together with staples that didn’t penetrate fully, so I wrapped the “spine” in about a quarter-inch of Scotch tape to fend off deterioration.  My story wasn’t the greatest, either; I had apparently underestimated the intellectual prowess of my audience, as I had included small colored shapes in the margins that included appropriate emotional responses such as “Very Funny!” or “Scary Part!”

* * *

Middle school was when our family purchased our first non-DOS-based computer–a horrid Packard Bell purchased from Walmart. Actually what happened was that we had that computer for maybe three days and it literally exploded while my dad was using it. We all heard the smoke alarm in the basement beeping, and ran downstairs to find my bewildered-looking father unable to comprehend why the computer was ejecting copious clouds of white smoke while making a sound like a vacuum cleaner in reverse.

Once we replaced it with a non-exploding model, I discovered the miracles of Microsoft Works and how it could create mediocre looking newsletters and such; to that end I filled disk after disk with useless documents such as “family newspapers” and stories that I would never finish.

The advent of my (first) journal (of many to date) was really the beginning of consistent writing for me.  I thought of it as the equivalent of one of those lacy pink diaries that girls will write things in such as “Hee hee, I like Brian, I think he is cute!”[1]  Of course I didn’t write any such nonsense, but I did try and keep my “journal disk” incredibly private, although there wasn’t much of personal value contained within.  Most of the entries consisted entirely of statements such as “I am bored,” or “School was stupid today.”  Hardly anything that could be considered Pulitzer Prize-eligible.

And then the Internet came.  My biology teacher in high school, of all people, was the one who induced my interest in web construction; my junior year I was his “lab assistant,” meaning I sat around and did nothing for an entire period every day.  One day he showed up with this humongous book on HTML and he loaned it to me.  Since we didn’t have Internet access on our crappy home computer, I used it to create a web page on a floppy disk (nerdically, and unsurprisingly, on Star Trek) which I took to the library and then uploaded to the internet. Years passed and so did my freakish obsession with Star Trek. (Stop judging me, fatty.)

College came, and so did high speed Internet, and my writing shot light years ahead of where it had been only years earlier.  The advent of a “web journal” consisting of actual content prompted me to write at least something every day, whether or not it was actually was worthwhile–because usually it wasn’t. That “something every day” amounts to content, whether or not someone will read it.

So I guess maybe “they” are right.  If it wasn’t for the vast and random content that I had created for no particular reason, then I suppose my talent (or lack thereof) wouldn’t be where it is now. At least I’ve found a style of my own—and I’ve had more than one professor tell me they don’t like it:

  • “You have fragments.”
  • “You overuse dashes and ellipses.”
  • “What is your obsession with the semicolon?”
  • “Your lists irritate me.”
  • “Stop using quotation marks so much.”
  • “They should call you ‘Punctuation Boy.’”

Pah!  I don’t care if any of my formatting quirks irritate them.  I’m creating content!  And “they” told me to!  “They” can’t be wrong. 

So I’ll keep ellipsing and hyphenating and listing and quoting and typing and typing and typing and typing and typing until I feel like… I don’t know.  Is there a threshold somewhere?

  1. Or if you are my 6-year-old sister, this will read as follows: “I LIK (sic) MAT (sic). HE IS CUT (sic) AND NIS (sic).”[]