At forty-five, dumbfounded and dismayed, I thought, “This guy expects me to write in the first five minutes of a class designed to help me improve my students’ writing? He has to be kidding!”
The instructor, a six-foot man burdened with unreasonable expectations and a teddy-bear body, introduced himself as Neil then announced we had five minutes to write a description of a time we were unhappy with a parent. “After that, you’ll all share what you wrote,” he said and beamed at us as though we’d be thrilled by the opportunity.
As my classmates scribbled away as if they were hell-bent on winning a Pulitzer, I wasted three minutes feeling put-upon before squeezing out four sentences. “It was a hot day in August. My mother and I were working in the garden. She was tired and disappointed by my behavior; and I was being belligerent because I thought she was picking on me.”
Neil then told us to reread our writing and circle each verb of being we’d used. For those of us a bit fuzzy about the verbs in question, he turned to the board and wrote “is, be, am, are, was, were, been, being.”
I smiled smugly as I circled six of the verbs; then Neil said, “Now, I want you to rewrite your piece without using the verbs you circled. Keep your situation, but get rid of every verb of being you can. You’ll probably have to add details and think of livelier verbs. It’s an interesting task, like a puzzle. I think you’ll enjoy solving it and the results you’ll get.”
The assignment intrigued me; so I willingly went to work and felt pleased with the result: “My mother and I pulled weeds in our vegetable garden under a hot August sun. Mom, tired from a new baby and canning peaches all day in a hot kitchen, looked at me with disappointment. But I continued to complain, “Why do I have to weed the garden? You expect me to work for free while Bob and Carolyn go earn money for themselves hoeing sugar beets. I hate doing their work.”
Next, Neil asked us to read both drafts to one another. In every case, the version written without verbs of being allowed our listeners to better visualize the characters, actions and emotions in our writing.
So, of course, that night when we did our homework assignment, a description of a childhood illness or accident, we over-reacted. Reading to one another the next day, we realized we’d written rambling sentences stuffed with excessive verbs and overblown details. Verbs of being couldn’t be found, but neither could simplicity, ease of reading or a clear story line.
The teacher we now trusted next led a three-pronged class discussion about the traditional belief of moderation in all things, the effective use of verbs of being and the understanding that any writing technique can became problematic when overdone.
During two fifty-minute classes, an extraordinary teacher had strengthened my writing and informed my teaching without assigning a worksheet or delivering a lecture.
Neil died recently. When I heard, I remembered telling him on the last day of class how his meaningful instruction had changed me as a writer and a teacher; and then I remembered the way he beamed — as though he had been thrilled by the opportunity.