A few weeks ago, I experienced one of those “nightmare come true” type of things. Like everyone, I have a recurrent dream about high school. I am in the halls, between classes, and utterly lost. I’m not sure where I am supposed to be, which class is next, or what books I need to wedge out of my locker. In fact, I don’t even remember which locker is mine. When my favorite teacher Mrs Goodwin suddenly appears, I feel a bit of relief. I credit her with herding me through the hallways when I was physically there, I know I can count on her in a dream.
BJ Goodwin was a feisty little women. She kept a pair of old lady spectacles perched on the tip of her nose. If displeased, a spontaneous twitch would make the reading glasses hop. This in turn caused the dangling chain to flash like an angry snake’s warning. Kids at my school were sure she was older than God Himself and had schooled him on the whole “wrath” thing.
Her knowledge of grammar and punctuation was above reproach. After just one semester in her writing mechanics class, if she didn’t fail you for fun, one could fight to the death, certain of victory, over the uses of there, they’re and their respectively. Good old Mrs. Goodwin was the stern mistress of the Language Arts wing. I concurrently adored her and feared her.
Meanwhile in my reliable dream: I notice I’m missing more than my schedule, I’ve forgotten my clothes too. Yeh, that’s right~ Mom is naked in the school hallway!
That’s where I usually wake up gasping in panic. Phew! Just a dream~I check the clock to tether myself to reality and then I roll over and call it a night…until the next time
On June 23rd my nakedness nightmare crossed lines and came fully into the realm of the real world. My silly-naughty-mess-method writing style was inadvertently put on display right here in the (virtual) school hallway. It was as mortifying as any episodic public nakedness could be. Both me and the oft-dreamt-of Mrs Goodwin were rightfully appalled.
I had a deadline...A couple of months ago I signed up for a tantalizing peer review workshop for new manuscripts. When I received notice that the session was full and that I would be wait-listed, frankly I just forgot about it. I promptly put my fledgling novel aside and went on with Mom-life as usual. On Sunday, three days before the beginnig of class I was notified that a seat had become open. Along with my $135 fee, all I had to send in was the first 10,000 words of my work. Oh Crap.
With no time to waste, I was flying on the keyboard. When I say flying, I mean that I was using barely coherent language, purely phonetic spelling and shards of sentences.Sequences of letters encrypted in a code only decipherable by me and fully lacking any graces of the English language…that’s the track I was on. The ideas in the story were coming faster than the words could land onto the screen. I had to get 10,000 spectacular words out of my head and into a readable format to be able to participate in the coveted workshop. And messy as it was, it was at least working until~
A nagging question and answer vignette with Mrs G began playing in my head:
Me: Ugh~ why do you assign us homework if you aren’t having a test? Why do I have to do all of this writing, no one is ever going to see it? What difference does a gerund make in my life? …and on and on
Mrs G: Because it’s for your own good…If you slack off and fall short of your potential you’re only cheating yourself… Homework isn’t for me, it’s for you…I may be able to push you to greatness but, I am sure as hell not willing to drag you there!
Yes, she would say stuff like this, she cussed in class. Scandalous and titillating! This was, after all, in 1970’s rural Indiana…we didn’t have HBO yet. Mrs Goodwin is still roaming about in my head to this day. I recall the slavish due diligence she demanded for a simple five paragraph essay…outline, topic sentence, thesis sentence and on and on. Her rants were epic and known far and wide across the Language Arts hallway of our school. Most famously she used to lecture us: Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell em, Tell ‘em, and THEN tell ‘em what you told ‘em… Just thinking about those classroom bouts of deconstruction and cadence unnerves and exhausts me still.
And grading scale? Well, if you were lucky, she didn’t like you. If she didn’t like you, she deemed you unworthy of her time and countenance (recall that she was old like Moses). So, that meant that you could fly under the radar with nice solid papers written to mirror the rubric. However, if she liked you…Katy bar the door!…turning in a paper was like leaning headlong into a shark tank. My papers came back with grades like C- and D+ on generous days. She decorated each assignment with red pen remarks like “pedestrian effort” or “the library has a thesaurus to lend.“
In all fairness though, the grades she entered onto my report card and transcript were all A’s.
You see, Mrs Goodwin operated on two grading scales. There was the one for assigned classwork and the one that she set for individual ability. She liked to mess with your head if she saw promise in your writing. She loved my writing and abhorred my sloth-y attitude so it went pretty ugly most days in class.
The perfectionism of BJ Goodwin stayed with me for years. My school essays were spot-on “A” winners every time. Often those essays got me in to places that my GPA wouldn’t have allowed. However, to sit down and try to write as I do today was unthinkable agony. Family stories have too many captions and side-notes to fit the formula for five perfect paragraphs. So, for the longest time, I found the task so overwhelming that I would spend weeks grinding away at a single story to share on a special occasion, or give up without really starting.
A few years ago, I took a leap of faith and tried my hand at the November writers’ ritual. In order to stay up to speed with the rigors of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) I had to let go of writing so “rigidly.” The best description I have for the method I slid into is that it’s sort of like writing War and Peace during a slow motion train wreck. It’s really simplistic and frankly a lot of fun.
I just write.
The first time I wrote “all crazy” like this, I understood how Brooke Shields felt in her Calvin Kleins….wow! I do no punctuation, no tense checking, and pay no mind to pesky stuff like spell check flags. I just type or scribble. I often catch myself figuratively talking Mrs Goodwin off of the ledge… I’m sure she would find the whole concept regressive and obscene.
The initial work I produce isn’t even remotely well written. It feels raw and naughty! My only goal is to move the general idea of out of my head and onto the tablet (old school or electronic…I use both equally). Once one of these creative episodes I call “tantrums” has passed, I review the words I have gathered. I salvage a train of thought. Most of the time it works out. Sometimes, even I have no idea where I was headed.
Mom note: Could this explain those ” I’m Naked at School” dreams? Hmmm…
Personally my biggest writing challenge is keeping the subject train on the tracks. With my gnat-like attention span I can flit off into the sunset at any moment. So this “wilding” style of rough copy writing I have come to habituate works really well for me. What does happen consistently from this messy-writing thing I’ve adopted is this~ I end up with an edited piece that I can label as a story. I also generally net at least one or two more “side stories” that can be brainstormed and fleshed out as well. Mostly I think it works out for me because I know nobody is looking.
Which rounds the corner to the point that I started out with…the “June 23rd incident of shame”
And so it happened that late last month while my fingers were having a happy party on the laptop– a slip occurred. I was really excited and on a roll. I just knew I could get my pages wrapped up and polished before the Wednesday class. After hours of writing, I decided I would have one last go at a character sketch before bed. I opened the trusty Chromebook, took a deep breath, arranged the tails of my robe “just so” and went at it.
Silly, naughty, messy me… I didn’t notice that I had opened WordPress, not Google Docs. With one fatal keystroke I inboxed a few hundred blog subscribers one of the most disjointed, random, ungroomed paragraphs ever seen by mankind. I went to bed and waited for Mrs Goodwin to rise up from her grave and slap me with a big red F-
life goes on
Here’s an excerpt from the whole mess (before I fixed it for my workshop of course):
So othat daywhen Annie Thomlinson pronounced my weiner dog Brut too fat, and further announced that for this and many other insufferable transgressions made by me by mere virtue of myexistence, all now valid reasons, that she could nolonger be my friend, the rest of the world went about their busiiness. The whole world, Inncluding Cindy , Sandy and for the most.part Zelda too.
And my belated apologies to those who were subjected to it. By the time it got to peer review, it was kinda stellar. If you found it in your inbox, sorry, my bad, it was a little shy of coherent.
So how about you? What are your writing secrets? Do you hold back by self-imposed perfection (I call that my inner Mrs G) or do you run loose and free and pick up the pieces later (my silly naughty mess method). Do you simmer ideas and words somewhere in between? Does your method serve you well…or do you need to try something new and daring? Most importantly …are you getting the stories of your loved ones and predecessors written down?
Come stand naked in the school hallway with Mom…Tell me ~what’s YOUR secret for getting the words onto the page?