Writing for me began with an “F” on my first paper for ninth grade English. It was a straight-forward assignment: an essay about My Most Prized Possession. I gave a second’s thought to what I’d write about – my dancing shoes – and that was the last second of thought I gave to the three-paragraph expository essay I titled, “My Most Prized Possession,” began with, “My most prized possession is …,” and ended with, “This concludes my essay on my most prized possession” – just in case my English teacher missed that I’d written about … my most prized possession.
The man gave me an F. I’d never seen anywhere close to that area of the alphabet, even in the subjects I stunk at (read: everything but English). Didn’t he know he was dealing with a Power of the Pen alumnus?
But my work didn’t speak to my cred. No, as my teacher stood in the front of the classroom with a pile of student papers to read aloud, it only took five examples for me to clue into two things: we’d all started our papers the same way, and we’d all flunked.
An F for thoughtlessness, for telling my stories without thought to how they could be told. An F for carelessness, for telling my stories without care to how I could tell them. An F for boredom, for telling my stories like a writing robot.
The stories we keep telling mean something to us. I return to this story all the time: The Day I Flunked. That F was the start of something for me, and I have one teacher and has nasty little red pen to thank for it, which I did in the Acknowledgments for Lu:
The seeds for writing stories as only I can tell them were planted in 9th grade English by Jim Michels. You taught me the rules, and you taught me how to break them. You taught me how to set my own bar of satisfaction so that I’d never submit something I wasn’t first pleased to read. Thank you for making it about the work and for teaching me to work well.
Jim agreed to come out of retirement to share some writing nuggets. That’s tomorrow, and it will be a treat. For today of NaNoWriMo, let’s think about a story we want to tell. Tomorrow, Jim will teach us how to tell it well.