Too high? Maybe. God only knows…
Re-reading chapter two of The Right to Write, I’m grateful for the experiences that led me to my attitudes about what it is to be a writer. My parents always encouraged me, whether it was in reading, writing, learning, playing – my mom set up a cork board in my room and pinned writing prompts to it. She was so far ahead of her time, and I wasn’t even home-schooled, more’s the pity. I’m ashamed to confess that these had about the same effect as the gold and silver stickers on book covers; I avoided them as if they were filled with baby spiders.
But still, I loved to write. And that passion was ignited in sixth grade. English, which we now call “Language Arts,” became less about syntax rules and diagramming sentences and living in the fear that Mrs. C__ might catch us chewing gum in public, and more about expressing, in words, all the wondrous things going on in our imaginations – if we still had anything left of them after all the sentence-diagramming, spelling tests, and rote memorization of the rules. “i before e, except after c, but always remember, it’s you before me.” Something like that. Don’t knock rote memorization; it gets the job done quickly, so kids can move on, confidently, to the fun stuff – having earned it. I’d be sunk if it weren’t for memorizing the times tables in math. It’s only when we get old and our memories start to falter that it seems like such a chore; young brains can memorize facts, daydream, and do back-flips at the same time, and repetition helps to engrave useful facts into the furrows of our gray matter so we won’t forget our grammar in our eighties. That said, I’ve never had a desperate need to recall the exact date Vasco de Gama finally found India by way of the sea. For that, there’s Google.
Anyway, my sixth grade English teacher – might have been seventh, now that I think about it – asked us to write an essay. I don’t remember what I wrote. I do remember taking pen and note pad down to the lake, along with my dog, where I sat on an old log and wrote. It was winter, and it was cold. But the act of writing warmed me, and I didn’t think much of it. I turned in that essay, and when it came back to me, covered in red ink, I was…
Mrs. T__ had taken the time, not only to read, but to offer suggestions and encouragement. There were as many words of praise as there were of criticism, and she took pains to ensure that I understood what she meant in her corrections. We talked, briefly, after class. She said something like, “Keep writing,” and I took it to mean, “Keep writing and give me all your scribbles.” She kindly continued to read, even when the work wasn’t part of an assignment. And she continued to spill red ink on everything I wrote, egging me on even more.
I’ve never really understood why some people fear and loathe red ink. Maybe they weren’t all so lucky to have a Mrs. T___ in their lives. Maybe they had evil, envious, embittered Ednas to suck out parts of their souls and possess their withered shells.
Or maybe I’m just thick-skinned and oblivious to the evil, envious, and embittered Ednas of the world. I probably have Jack to thank for that. He hired me for my first real writing job – as a technical writer. Jack had noticed that I asked a lot of questions and took good notes, and he needed someone to write documentation. His first, best advice to me was to “let go of any pride of authorship.” He explained that there would be many reviewers, many corrections to be made, and many opinions on how best to present the information. At some point, you had to stick a fork in it, declare it “good enough,” and move on to the next project. Perfection was a personal problem, and something to be chased off the clock, on your own time.
Accuracy, clarity and usefulness, on the other hand, were important. I added one other criteria to the list: the documentation should not be mind-numbingly dull or unnecessarily long. My yardstick? I’d been a systems engineer, for two whole years, despite having no formal training in computer science – and having never written a line of code. If one of my jobs bombed at 3:00 AM, I had to fix it – brain dead or not. The last thing I needed was a sedative in the form of rambling prose. I just needed straight answers.
Most of the freelance work I’ve landed has come about because of this principle, codified in the 1980s “Total Quality Management” philosophy that “quality” means “meets the customer’s reasonable expectations, on time, and within budget.” Not because of some hyped notion of exceeding expectations – which is often appallingly easy. It’s not hard at all to exceed expectations when an editor calls you in a panic because the first writer they lined up wrote a small novel instead of 400 words, and never touched on the assigned topic, and they have a column to fill by morning.
I can get angsty with the best of them on my own time, though. Jack should never have planted the suggestion that that was okay.
Write With Me
The next “initiation tool” asks us to make a list of ten “hidden associations” we have with the word “writer,” and then to convert the negatives into positives. My first thought is, “What negatives?” But fine, let’s play this game:
Writers are playful.
This one’s true. I’m wicked playful with words, and admire those who are even moreso, like my friend James David Audlin, whose talent for crafting a pun is legendary. Friends know that I don’t really edit their IMs and emails, but that I have no restraint and cannot promise not to exploit a funny typo for every last drop of humor.
Writers are precise.
I value precision, clarity, and interesting word choices. But I often ramble and beat around the bush.
Writers are afraid to commit.
I’m afraid of marring the pristine page with unworthy words. This is where technology has been a boon to writers; we don’t seem to mind killing a million pixels with a few taps on the keys nearly as much as we mind the haunting notion of an entire forest of old pine being sacrificed, screaming, in the name of paper for our scribbles.
Writers are lazy.
Guilty as charged. If it weren’t for readers, I could spend my life lost in my own imagination, content to daydream and rest my weary fingers. Then again, a girl’s gotta eat.
Writers are nitpicky.
Language has power and meaning. The wrong word choice could, theoretically, trigger WWIII. Or turn you into a trending Twitter hashtag. Carelessly tossing words like confetti confuses readers; self-proclaimed “experts” doing it confuses foreigners who are sincerely trying to learn and expand their communication skills. In that case, I’m all for tossing in a few words that drive readers to a dictionary – it’s all in the name of learning. The only reason I’m ‘nitpicky’ about minor mechanical errors is that my fingers literally feel every typo, and when I read others’ work that’s riddled with glaring typos, my hands itch to correct them and I start rummaging around for a Sharpie marker. Life’s too short for that, so I do wish others were more concerned with their spelling, grammar, and apostrophe use. If I were a professional editor, I’d welcome it – provided you could spare a cool $65/hour to let me relieve my mental itchiness.
Writers are imaginative.
Oh, you have no idea…children are imaginative; writers are people who never outgrew their imaginary friends and fantasy realms. We just call them “characters” and “settings,” now, so we don’t get locked in padded cells and have them medicated right out of us. Writers quickly learn to sublimate; we refuse to repress and supress.
Writers are earning six-figure advances.
Some of them, maybe… not this one.
Writers are people who love to go on tour and do book signings.
We love the idea of it, but many of us are introverts who’d rather hire a body-double to do it.
Writers are prolific word-cranking machines who cannot live without writing.
Nope. This is the one that’s hardest to admit; I don’t know that I could live the rest of my life without writing, but it is not a driving, demonic force that consumes my every waking thought, believe it or not. See “Writers are lazy,” above.
Writers are…people, who write.
Pretty much. Of course, there are people who say, “I wish I were a writer,” when what they really mean is, “I wish I were a famous author making six-figure advances.” The irony is that the latter won’t happen unless you do the Writer’s ABCs (“Apply Butt to Chair” and write). That’s not very glamorous, and it’s the one point that separates the writer from the non-writer. The writer writes. Something. Eventually. Whether it’s any good or not.