Last Updated 20 Mar 2017

When It All Began

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When I began kindergarten I was able to print my name in large letters. But the school was teaching me to write from scratch. I was put into advanced writing because the school linked writing to reading, and I was an advanced reader. I was not an advanced writer. At that age, I lacked the small-muscle control for precise penmanship, and I usually found my writing lessons an unpleasant, frustrating struggle. I squeaked through without being singled out as a poor student, but I began to dislike and feel anxious about writing.

In my first and last week of first grade, I learned what it meant to fall behind. We were no longer in reading and writing groups. Before recess one day, everyone in class was assigned to write their name ten times. With my usual care and diligence, I began to work. When it was time for recess, I was the only student who hadn’t finished. Doing a half-ass job just to be done on time had never occurred to me. In my six-year-old view of life, doing something meant doing it as best as I could, there were no other options.

Seeing my unfinished work, my teacher jumped to the worse conclusion. While the other kids went out for brief chance to play, she and her aide kept me inside for a lecture on how I needed to work harder. They assumed I had no finished because I had not tried, and when I told them I couldn’t work faster, the ignored this as if it must be a lie. As so often happens to student in schools, I was presumed to be lazy, dishonest, and driven by the worst intentions.

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At age six, all I understood from my teacher’s lecture was that I had done very badly on my assignment and should have been able to do much better. She and her aide even made me promise that I would finish all my future assignments on time, a promise that, as I told them and they wouldn’t believe, I didn’t think I could keep. Their intense disapproval and this need to make false promise upset me deeply, and made me doubt my own abilities in a way that I never had before. If they were so certain that only lazy people write as badly as I did, yet I knew I wasn’t lazy, I could only conclude something was wrong with me. It must be that I’m no good at writing. And since my deficiency had earned me such disapproval, I was ashamed of it.

My parents took me out of school that week, but my belief that I was a bad writer lasted for years after my last school day. I was afraid to write because I was sure I would fail. With most of what I did, I had no concept of failure, only of needing to improve or try again or take a different approach. Being out of school, with its flexibility and lack of external judgments, rarely involves failure. Someone out of school who doesn’t understand a math concept has no more failed than a baby who falls down while trying to walk, she simply hasn’t learned it yet.

As my family began homeschooling, writing was the only subject I wanted to avoid. Through my school lessons and failure had only been with penmanship, I also feared composition, it was all writing, and I had developed a mental block against anything under that name. My mother worried, she could see that all other aspects of homeschooling were going smoothly, but what about this one important life skill that I hated and feared. Believing that she had to keep me from falling behind, she tried making me do writing assignments. She didn’t give them to me often, for they were miserable ordeals for the both of us. But every few months or so she would start worrying that she wasn’t teaching her daughter to write, and would try giving me an assignment or a series of them. Sometimes she tried to find ways to make writing fun. She had me practice penmanship by writing favorite phrases in pretty colors. She asked me to write short stories twice, I never finished either one, and for a while she had me keep a journal.

None of it worked. Even the fun assignments were only fun for a few minutes, then the fun wore off and fear, frustration, and resentment took over. When I did other projects, I was enthusiastic and full of ideas, but whenever I had to write, I became listless, uninspired, and uncreative. I brought nothing to the assignment, she had to lead me, or drag me all the way because I was only working toward her expectations, not my own ideas. I wrote badly. I could tell how poor my work was, which reinforced my belief that I couldn’t write. My style and content were unrelentingly dull and generic. I was too afraid of writing to be able to put my imagination or my identity into it.

I did not progress. To progress, one has to analyze what one is doing and look for ways to improve, and I was frozen in the glare of my knowledge that I was a bad writer. Since every writing assignment only made matters worse, my mother tried the only other possibility. She allowed me no to write, she neglected the subject. She let me fall behind a grade level. She removed the pressure and gave me a chance to outgrow and forget my fear. Except for thank-you notes, I wrote nothing at all.

When I was almost twelve, after some years of no writing, Mom again suggested that I try keeping a journal. Unlike the previous journal, which had been an assignment for educational purposes, she made it clear that this one was entirely my decision and that writing skills wouldn’t be an issue. If I wanted to do it at all, I would be free to scribble any old illegible and incomprehensible mess I chose. Furthermore, she wouldn’t expect to see any more of it than I felt like showing her, a few years earlier, I wouldn’t even had consider taking such a suggestion without being pushed into it, but my time away from the dreaded subject had taken the edge off of my fear. I was intrigued by the idea of keeping a record of my life that I could look back on later. This idea was safe enough, with its complete lack of outside pressure and no need to even think about whether my writing was correct, that I felt comfortable giving it a try.

I wrote in my journal daily, enjoyed it, and put no effort at all into the quality of my writing. Nearly the whole journal consists of two kinds of sentences, the short, simple kind I had use in my assigned writing, and long monotonous run-ons that I had never used before. The run-ons, some of which went on for pages, came from my completely ignoring the technical side of writing and, for the first time in my life, simply rambling unselfconsciously.

Then I decided to write a book. I had been keeping the journal for a year when I had the idea. My inspiration was TV, light reading, and daydreams. For the first time in my life, I was planning a serious writing project that I eagerly wanted to work on. It arose from my own ideas and interest, which was on overwhelmingly important aspect that has to occur at its own moment. Giving children assignments tied to their interests is a poor substitute for letting them follow those interests into whatever learning comes naturally. My mom had tried giving me writing assignments on things that interested me. But being interested in the subject doesn’t mean I want to write about them, so such attempts to tie assignments to interests are often ineffective.

When I started writing, I worked slowly, carefully, and well. No one minded, no one checked up on me to see what I was accomplishing. My parents showed friendly interest, as they would if I had a new toy or a new playmate, but they never expressed interest. Motivated wholly by desire to express my ideas, I was energetic and creative. Instead of captive forced to struggle with a hated duty, I became an artist at work, passionate, inspired, striving toward an ideal that had come from my own thoughts.

At last I opened my mind and let myself be influenced by all the good writing I had seen. I had, after all, been reading profusely for nearly my whole life. All those years, I had seen and enjoyed good writing again and again yet never imitated it. Now with me writing my book, I considered style for the first time and followed the examples of the authors I had read. As I gathered my observations together and used them without fear, I gained my first solid evidence that I had been wrong for seven years, I could write.

I worked on my book on and off for several months before I got absorbed in other things and lost interest. When I wrote, I was very slow, because, with my lack of experience, it took a long time to do the sophisticated work I wanted to do. In the end, I only wrote a total of three pages. But however little I had put down on paper, I had learned a tremendous amount and found confidence in my ability to write.

After abandoning the book, I did not write seriously for the next three years or even continue with the journal. This was very different from my old no writing days, though, I was only uninterested, not afraid. Writing a thank-you note or an occasional letter to Grandma was now pleasant and non-threatening. I wasn’t writing compositions every week, but who cares. I had already gained as much as a student needs to, adequate writing skills, confidence in my ability, and knowledge that I would be able to learn more about writing anytime I chose.

At age sixteen, at an outdoor concert, I picked up a political flier urging people to write to Congress in opposition to welfare. I felt strongly about this issue and wanted to influence the outcome, so I quickly decided to write. I let ideas for what to say in the letter float through my mind for a couple of days. I was writing because I had an idea that I wanted to express, and again, I drew on my reading experience as I attempted to express myself well. This time I used the writing style I had seen in the political commentary pieces I read in the magazines and newspapers.

With that letter, I found that I loved the process of writing. I developed a passion for putting words together to express my thoughts and feelings, and I been writing ever since. After the welfare letter, I began to write profusely on a variety of topics. I was starting fresh, seeing my college writing assignments simply as what they were, a set of requirements that I voluntarily agreed to so I could get help with my work, instead of linking them to my grade-school nightmare.

When It All Began essay

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