For National Teachers’ Day, May 8

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.”

Oh.

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.

Advertisements

The Imposter Syndrome

A friend, a professional musician, told me that sometimes, waiting to be introduced, he looked at his trombone and thought, “What is this thing I’m holding? And what do all those people out there expect me to do with it?”

He called these occasional feelings of incompetence the imposter syndrome.

businesswoman speechThinking he was joking, I laughed.

Then came an evening when I finished reading to an audience from my book and asked for questions. A young woman volunteered first: “When did you discover your writer’s voice, and how did you develop it?”

 I stared at her, thoughts ricocheting in my head: “Who’s she talking to? Me? What’s voice? Who’s a writer? I have nothing to say to these people.”

I cleared my throat and managed to choke out an answer. Then, through some miraculous act, I returned to my body. My mind cleared, and my words flowed in response to their questions.

PARKERI described how the best advice I’d ever heard about writing came from Dorothy Parker, who wrote for top magazines including The New Yorker. When asked how to become a good writer, she responded in six words, “Read, read, read, write, write, write,” and took the next question.

I follow her counsel nearly every day.

94px-Stephen_King,_Comicon I talked about a revision strategy Stephen King advocates in his book On Writing: using the delete key. Frequently. It might seem ironic, but Mr. King, a writer who publishes books as thick as dictionaries, cuts his manuscripts daily and then again by at least ten percent after he thinks they’re finished.

After studying his reasoning, I vowed to eliminate bird walks, distractions, any word that doesn’t directly contribute  to my story or message — even when they are charming words I labored over and fell in love with.

Strengthening my relationship with the delete key has also strengthened my prose. I now understand George Bernard Shaw who sent a letter to his friend ending with: “I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”

I also told my audience about my fourth-grade students who taught me another writing skill: reading my writing aloud to myself or others before I publish it.

In a safe classroom, most children like to read what they’ve written to their peers and, when doing so, read with conviction. Occasionally, however, a child in my class would grind to a halt, scrutinize what was written, look puzzled, then smile with relief and explain: “Oh, I forgot some words,” or, “I meant to say George did it,” or even, “That doesn’t sound good. I need to fix it.”

We hear flaws more clearly when we read our work aloud, because, when we read silently, no matter how many times, our sly, informed minds supply what is needed; and we think everything is hunky-dory.

I read everything I write aloud: sometimes the entire piece, sometimes only the troublesome parts, but always. My husband calls it my muttering phase.

As I shared with my audience the things I’ve learned by reading, reading, reading and writing, writing, writing, I realized I knew something about the craft of stringing words together in a meaningful way. I was not an imposter.

I suppose all of us who work at something we’re passionate about can fall prey to self-doubt and a loss of confidence. Fortunately, it’s usually fleeting.