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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

What I Learned in School

Today, M. J. Lovgren is back to give us another post. (If you recall, she wrote about accidental short stories back in March.) Take it away, M. J...

The great thing about Catholic school is that the survivors always recognize each other. You can be at a party or talking with someone at Starbucks or chatting in an elevator; and they’ll say, “I went to Saint Ignatius or Holy Apostles or Sacred Heart grammar school. It doesn’t matter where those schools were, you recognize each other. “Omigod, you say,” I went to Saint Catherine’s Academy in Podunk, Iowa.” The other person’s school was in Manhattan.

Doesn’t matter. It’s all the same, particularly if you’re of a certain age where there were no lay teachers and the nuns reigned supreme. Pretty soon you’re sharing stories of crowded classrooms, weekday Masses, singing Gregorian chants from phonetic lyrics on the blackboard. This works particularly well if you grew up on the Latin Mass.

St. Ambrose Elementary school is where I learned to write. The best thing about these old parish schools was their emphasis on the arts. We sang, we drew, we wrote. We learned grammar and spelling. We learned how to write essays. But most importantly, we learned something called “creative writing”. And we learned not to be afraid of a blank page.

To this day, I don’t outline, whether I’m writing an article, a blog, a short story, or even a novel. I just do what I learned to do at St. Ambrose. I think a little about what I’m going to write, and then I jot down some quick notes that will be my road map – a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even in my tender single-digit years I was learning classic story structure.

Anyone who’s ever taken a writing class or read a book on how to write knows about the shitty first draft. I learned this in grade school. The important thing is to get it down. Then you can go back and correct it, polish it, dress it up in its best clothes. I still do this. I’ve learned you can’t rush the process. Things will change as you go back over what you’ve written. They’re supposed to. No one wants to read your shitty first draft.

Take your time – even if you’re on deadline. It will come to you. It will happen. But you have to keep at it. For me, rewrite takes about three times what I spent writing the first draft. The third edit is the slowest. That’s where I haul out the Thesaurus, look for the right word, finalize the structure – you get the idea. It’s like polishing the silverware. I want to get rid of the last bit of tarnish and let its essence shine.

I also learned something important in my freshman year in college. I was lucky enough to go to Pomona College, one of the Claremont Colleges. In 1888, it set down in what is euphemistically called the Inland Empire in Southern California. Pomona College looks like New England stuck on the opposite coast. I applied there because I liked the ivy-covered buildings. True story.

I loved the English classes. They were unlike anything I’d previously encountered. The first semester was devoted to Anthropology – don’t ask me why. Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture was quite the eye-opener to a Catholic school girl. But it was the second semester that focused on writing. We were used to fooling our high school teachers with vacuity disguised by padding. I think they must have graded us by the pound. Our professor was having none of this.

Our first assignment was to read and report on Faulkner’s short/long story, “The Bear”. We gave it our all, and I’m sure none of us understood it. I still don’t. But senseless prattle didn’t cut it in this classroom. We reeled under a torrent of “D”s and “F”s. Class discussion centered on our outrage.

“What did you mean by this?” our professor asked, his voice dripping with displeasure as he’d read passages from several papers. The hapless authors always gave answers as inane as their papers. Most common was, “I know what I mean, but I can’t explain it.”

“If you can’t explain it, you don’t know what it means,” he roared back. This man was obviously not going to be fooled by the weight of our papers. What to do? We decided we had to learn to write differently. That was a long time ago, but it’s yesterday in my mind. It’s important to be precise. To understand everything you put on paper, to know why it’s there, and communicate it clearly.

 Whenever I find I’ve written a bunch of pretty words that are actually obfuscation, I will ask myself:  “What does this really mean?” If I can’t answer that, I probably have to throw this out.

So what did I learn from these two classroom experiences? Think about what you want to write. Have a plan, but keep it simple. Just get it down, you’ll have to rewrite.

You learn the most from people who challenge you.

Above all, when you write, be sure you know what it means.