Revenge of the psycho writer chick

I hope you don’t think of me as a ruthless taskmaster of a teacher. But looking back over my decades of teaching, I realized something sad. I make my students cry.

I don’t mean to. Please indulge me a moment to roll a mental video so that I can explain.

Picture an old school TV sitcom in which the main character, a girl, wears many disguises. Maybe she has overbooked the night with too dates lined up. She can’t make up her mind which one she likes best, so goes out with all of them at the same time and meets them at the corner grill.

She starts off with Date #1, Mr. Football Player, a guy who digs chicks who can talk an iso-blocking scheme and a corner blitz. She snuggles in her favorite oversized NCAA jacket and meets him at a table. She spends the next 15 minutes reliving last night’s game, play by play. She doesn’t have to talk because he’s forgotten she’s there. The guy comes up for air, and she excuses herself from the table and says she has to go to the little girls’ room.

She rushes in the door, throws the football jacket in a corner, and pulls a peace sign out of her pocket. She slips it over the psychedelic tie-dye shirt she’s been wearing under the jacket. She kicks off her shoes and slips on the flip flops tucked away in her backpack. She’s off to meet Date #2, Lyric Man.

He waits for her at a table on the patio under the stars. Coincidentally, he has his guitar with him. He always has his guitar with him. And together they write a song on an old napkin. Then he sings it to her. The emotion is too great, and she runs to the bathroom.

As soon as she enters, she slips on the jacket again. Changes shoes and digs through the backpack for her brother’s old laptop. Doesn’t matter what she wears as long as she has the computer. She searches the outer edges of the restaurant for the guy who’s wired—Captain Geek Squad.

There he is. He’s plugged in the only available outlet. Gotta save the battery. He’s not worried she’s late. He’s got Wi-Fi. She shows him her PC and says she’s thinking about converting. He weeps. Then he launches into a deep emotional discussion of the benefits of owning a Mac vs. PC. He talks until a friend texts him with a problem—the  blue screen of death. Captain Geek Squad has no other choice but to console his buddy, and she takes advantage of the situation and rushes to the bathroom.

You know what happens next. Our protagonist runs herself ragged switching from one date to another. She finally blows her cover when she wears her peace sign and tie-dye with the football player, hands Lyric Man the computer, and tells Captain Geek Squad she runs a Power I instead of Windows 7.

I can relate. But my identity crisis centers around writing.

When I’m a sociology teacher, I’m laid back, but I follow the rules. “Yes, start with a topic sentence so the reader knows what you’re talking about. How many sentences? Oh, I don’t know—maybe four or five. Whatever. Just do a good job of proving your opinion. State some facts.”

When I’m a junior English teacher, I preach writing assessment. “Five paragraphs! You can’t possibly write an essay without five paragraphs. Where’s your hook? You can’t score a 6 without your hook!”

When I become English teacher at large, I speak only in Shakespearean sonnets, and I turn up my nose at persons who split an infinitive or use a nominative case preposition where an objective case pronoun should go.

When I play college teacher, I’m become the Grim Reaper of Comma Usage. Instead of a scythe, I carry a red ink pen and yellow highlighter. Can’t you hear my eerie laughter as I spout off Little Brown’s comma rules? 25A, compound sentence! 25B, introductory elements! 25J, no unnecessary commas. NO UNNECESSARY COMMAS! Ba ha ha ha ha. (Evil laugh.)

When I merge from death mode and become a journalism teacher, I bury my attributes, one by one. And, by the way, no, we DON’T put a comma before the conjunction in a series of items.

And then I go home and write. And I cry, just like my students. I thought I was a pretty good writer until I tried something new—writing fiction. Writing is hard. It’s like a puzzle; all the pieces have to fit. There are rules. You can’t cut off the edges and force a piece to fit.

You can’t teach a person to become a good writer. You can only provide the opportunities.

Academic writing is easiest for me. I can’t remember ever failing at academic writing. In fact, a few days ago I ran wildly through the house, screaming with joy because I Googled my name and found a professor who praised one of my academic articles that appeared in a book that was published last year. I wrote the article decades ago. I’ve learned so much more since then.

But it hasn’t come easy. I write every day. I’ve learned that only a fool turns his or her head to wisdom. I glean wisdom from other writers who have paid their dues. It probably didn’t come easy for them either.

Yet a lot of my students think it should.

They tell me how stupid academic writing is, how it stifles their creativity. Their pride takes a major hit when I splash their paper with red ink and tell them to revise.

I’ve been there. It hurts. As I said, I thought I knew something about writing—until I started writing a novel.

My students offer excuses. “I just can’t write if I’m told what to write.” “I have to have a deadline.” “Academic writing isn’t writing. There are too many rules.” “I’d rather write songs or poems. I need to express myself.”

What my poor, sweet, innocent students don’t realize is that all writing has rules. All writing—except writing for personal blogs or journals. You can pretty much get away with anything that you allow yourself, but then you’re writing for an audience of one—yourself. (If you’re writing for an audience of One, God–that’s a different story.) Generally, we have a need to connect with other people, and we can do that with our writing. Our blog writing can turn into professional blog writing, a ministry, a launch pad to devotional writing, etc. But there are rules. The key to effective writing is discipline.

Creative writing sounds easy. Want to know a secret? Creative writing is the most difficult type of writing I’ve ever pursued in my life—both in writing novels and writing songs. I have a LONG way to go in songwriting. That’s a different story.

I make my students cry because I make them “toe the line.”

Conforming to a standard isn’t easy. I know. I’ve wanted to give up too. I’ve thrown things. I’ve said ugly words. (But I haven’t written them.) I have grown. I have gotten better.

I hold my students accountable—even if they cry—because, like me, I know they can do better too. I can’t give them the ability. They have to find it within themselves through opportunity, and opportunity comes with practice, practice, practice.

Sometimes they come to a writing opportunity wearing “the wrong attire”—similar to the girl with the three dates. It’s inevitable. They’re going to end up frazzled unless they can write to their audience. I can’t help them if they refuse to change. It’s foolish to argue with stubborn pride.

By now, you know I’m a conundrum—wacky one minute and OCD serious the next. But here’s one thing you should know. I let down my guard with a person who tells me the truth—somebody I can trust, somebody who tells me I need to “toe the line.” And I, the psycho writer chick, almost never let down my guard.

And dear student, if by chance, you read this. Know I am your biggest fan. I believe with all my heart you will make it—if only you don’t give up. I’ll cry with you if I you want me to. Let down your guard. Believe me when I tell you that you can do it. Together we can “toe the line.”

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12 thoughts on “Revenge of the psycho writer chick

  1. I enjoyed your date night analogies and each persona especially the football player and lyric dude. I even like the small person holding the axe. Nice touch. Creative writing is really hard. You are correct. This post was quite awesome, though. Kudos.

  2. Just remember that it’s okay to make a mistake. I have to remember that before I beat myself up. Did you recognize the axe? I think I’ve got one like that hidden in my desk drawer for Motlow.

    Thanks for encouraging me. By the way, I have a writing contest you might be interested in. I printed it off for you and put it in your cubby.

  3. You’re right to help students learn to write to their audience. I write too, and did debate and speech in high school where this was drilled into my head: identify your audience! But where I really learned it was in riding and training horses. This instructor wanted this way; the instructor from Germany did it another way. This judge liked the horse to do X; that judge preferred Y. I took lessons from each person I encountered along the way, finally establishing my style.

    And the ones who got me started are the ones whose voices I cherish most, even above the gold medalist and the princess’ (ex) husband.

    • I think we carry a little bit within us of the ones who really made a mark on our hearts and souls. It shows up in our speech, writing, mannerisms, etc.

  4. Academic writing isn’t easy, but I think creative writing is much more difficult. If academic writing is like going shopping with $50, then creative writing is like going shopping with $5,000. There are so many more choices, and it’s easy to become bogged down in figuring out what you want to do.

    I’m glad you don’t let tearful or grumbling students stop you from giving them the opportunity to refine skills needed to become puissant writers and communicators. : )

    • I just hope I haven’t caused permanent damage to any of them. 🙂 I just hold a very special forever place in my heart for those people who have given up their time to help me bring out any talent that I might have hidden. I guess I know what it feels like to be the underdog. I’m such a wimp. I can’t think of anything better than to be that encouragement for students who struggle with self doubt.

  5. I’m torn. I kind of want to agree but the rebel in me wants to disagree… I’m not sure the self discipline that comes from learning academic writing in school could possibly prepare someone for the self discipline needed in writing fiction. In school you do it for the grade, the test, etc. If you love it, you continue to do it, if you don’t, you pretty much put it out of your head and move on to something else. To excel at creative writing you HAVE to be passionate about it. Nothing but passion is gonna make you learn everything you have to and apply it day after day with no carrot (grade) at the end, except the satisfaction of finishing. (Yes, I wrote gonna, I write for teens-smile). Nothing but passion is gonna make you continue to do it after heart wrenching rejections from both agents and editors. With passion comes the self discipline to keep doing it no matter what. Not sure you can learn, or teach, that kind of self discipline in any high school English class. On the other hand, a good English teacher can inspire that kind of passion:)
    Teri

  6. You said it the way I wanted to say it. Passion has to come from within. A teacher can’t put it there, but a teacher can help deliver it from within the student.

    I think if a teacher can help a student taste success, then maybe the student will take the initiative next time.

    Sadly though, the students who complain the most about the minimum requirements we have these days, lack passion. Period. 😦 And passion drives discipline.

    I just can’t imagine living life without passion.

    Thanks SO MUCH for commenting. You made me think. I like that!

  7. I love this post. Yep, creative writing can damned hard. Especially tough coming at it from academic writing. My mother is doing that now, trying to unlearn years of politically-correct, non-profit speak, all that passive construction. Fleh! But I can only imagine teaching all the proper things all day long, and then approaching your own passion only to have this little demon looking over your shoulder, watching your subject/pronoun agreements and your commas. Push that sucker off!

  8. Yes! I feel like such a rebel whenever I intentionally slap down a fragment or use slang like “gonna.” Writing in the true vernacular of your protagonist is both fun and challenging. Sometimes I find myself slipping into my own speech patterns and have to snap out of it.

    Of course, with the blogging I experiment. I can let my quirkiness fly. I “kinda” like that.

    Thanks so much for taking time to stop by and for leaving a comment. 🙂

  9. you know what you do talk like me mum.well all school teachers have got the same trade’s in personalities i presume.but you know what mam you got a very nice way of expressing your views because though it’s a long blog once you start reading it you get engrossed in it. good luck with your students and yeah do check out my blog if you get sometime.PS-loved it

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