Thanks to some help from my wife’s uncle I made six quarts of soup. The soup is tasty but more delicious is the knowledge. I’ve gone from being given a fish to a fishing pole.
The steps for making the soup included chopping vegetables, something I do all the time but also included new tasks like making beans from a bag and using a ham hock for the broth. I didn’t know how to do either of things. Now I do.
I love trying, making, and sometimes failing with new food and of all the new-ish foods I’ve cooked recently, this is the one that’s been the most rewarding because it reminds me the most about writing.
I’m writing a book. It might not be any good. It might not sell any copies. It might be a waste of time and money. I’m still doing it.
In school I was a poor writer. Poor might be too generous a term. I self-identified as a ‘math kid’ or ‘sport kid’ not a ‘writing kid.’ I grew up with the view that math and science were mutually exclusive to writing and art. My circle was the former, to change my track would be like asking a train to make a left turn. If I was good at math then I could not be good with words went my thinking. This showed in my writing.
I wrote like Edmond Dantes while confined in Chateau d’If, English class was my prison.
In math classes I would be consistently in the top 10 percent. I was never the smartest kid in class, but I was never below average. In writing it was the opposite. My stellar math grades for the semester would be weighted down with term papers marked in large B- or C+ stains. Then I went to college – and got no better.
I got better at filling in the space on papers. My first semester I wrote a 25 page midterm paper. It was probably quite bad, I don’t know because the instructor lost the papers at the Atlanta airport. My writing was good enough to get through college and then into graduate school, but at no point did it become good. I still thought of myself as a ‘math kid’ even though the last math class I took was in 2002.
In graduate school I went to a professors office after class and asked how students got graduate appointments. She told me that all the appointments for the year were filled but that she needed someone the next year. I said I would take it because I had no other options and needed the money. Then I asked what the appointment was for. ‘You’ll be grading papers.’ she said. Papers, written papers? How could a writer as amateurish as me be an authority on writing? I doubted I could do it. Let me meet the other teaching assistants (TA) I thought. One introduced herself and said she had an MFA in literature. I had gotten a TA position I was under-qualified for with a group of people overqualified for it. What was I going to do?
I did what I had to do, I took it one step at a time. In the first semester my fellow TA with the MFA emailed the students a guide for writing. It included where to put quotation marks, punctuation tips, and general writing advice. I used it a lot. I needed it. I was entering a sea of writing and would grab hold to anything that floated. I bookmarked websites, I consulted manuals, I studies what good papers of past semester looked like. I slowly got better.
My first semester I read 360 pages of student writing. The next semester was over 700 pages. By the end of my four years at that school as a student and staff, I read nearly 5,000 pages of student writing. Eventually I got good at evaluating their work. I could read the first paragraph for a paper and know what sort of quality would follow. I don’t know if I was writing better but noticed what better writing looked like.
I started this blog in 2010, others before that. Those other blogs were shuttered like a restaurant whose cook didn’t want to get better at cooking. He made a few good meals but got tired of the limited menu along with the customers. On this blog the writing has gotten better. When drafting a post I can feel how the words are flowing and have an idea about how many proofreadings it will take to have something more polished. This post feels like it needs to be read twice. It’s long and important. It tells a story about my past and future and I want it to come out right.
Last month I went to play ultimate frisbee with friends from college. Ultimate frisbee is a sport that most people begin in college. They learn to throw and catch a frisbee in different ways than in the backyard. They learn the rules and strategy. It’s a new experience for almost everyone who starts playing.
I learned to critique writing. I learned to play ultimate frisbee. I learned to make soup. Each of these things are examples of something I knew nothing about before starting. Each is an example where I started small with no pride and just wanted to get a little better because even little steps at this time were big improvements.
The next thing is writing.
Every writer says to be a good writer you need to write and you need to read. That’s what I’ll do. Write and read, write and read, rinse and repeat, and write and read.
Someday I’ll be a ‘writing kid.’