Monday, August 19, 2013

A Literacy Narrative (with no Semicolons)

Style over substance. It's a dirty phrase. If writing had seven deadly sins, prioritizing style over substance would be at least three of them. I knew it was wrong, of course. Everyone did. It was drilled over and over through high school essays, reports, portfolios, and the like. What writing needed was purpose. It needed a point, and the longer a writer dragged it through the dirt, the duller it would get.

But I thought I was good at writing. I don't mean the "I'm-a-teenager-and-I'm-good-for-my-age" good, either. The way I wrote with a wanton disregard for anything anyone could consider a purpose,  I must have thought I was glorious. Teachers would always tell the class to avoid so-called "fluff" writing, which was an obstacle to writing anything worth reading, but the reason I thought I was so good was because they never caught me. I went years, a decade, producing grade-A style-over-substance fluff. I had no idea what I was writing about, who I was writing it for, why I was writing it at all. But I wrote. I had a general mastery of the language. I could use semi-colons correctly. I always proofread my work, and I made sure I used words that I heard from men and women much smarter than me. I was a sucker for aesthetics--achieving that was my goal, and as far as I was concerned, it got me through my classes just fine.

It's hard to pinpoint one exact moment when I hit the realization that the sort of writing I was producing didn't make me happy. I was happy to please my teachers with my mastery of language (most of them, after all, were concerned with getting their students to pass the next upcoming state exam). It was mining for information, neural connections, over and over, for the purpose of a letter on a page. But the writing process itself was painful. It was tedious, boring work. My love for writing, which had ignited under the pressure of my voracious reading during my early years, did not die out quickly. Rather, it was crushed, slowly, bit by bit, as if run over by a particularly slow-moving train. Years of schooling wore me down to a finely polished, five-paragraph producing nub of a writer. With my formula, I produced the maximum score on both the AP Language and AP Literature exams. I did decently on my SATs and ACTs. I also missed writing to write.

When I got to college, I started reading again. It had fallen into a lull during my high school years, after years of pretending I didn't love to learn turned me into somewhat of a problem child. *Add-On* It wasn't until I entered my first Creative Writing course at UGA that I was given just the right ratio of structure and freedom to really explore the depths of my own writing in conjunction with reading. The class revolved around weekly prompts that were based on the reading for the week (which usually consisted of one novel or novella per week). Sometimes they were broad, creative, and left a lot of room to roam. Other times they were specific responses to the text. Such prompts could include things such as:
  • Continue a story using the first paragraph of the novel, heading in a completely different direction
  • Complete a story in 20 minutes in a room with no distractions
  • Write poetry which is based on lyrics. Then, remove the lyrics from the poem.
  • Write a story in which you manipulate the order of time and chronology.
...and other such starting points. It was the juxtaposition of these fascinating books with the writing prompts that connected the two in a way I wasn't fully cognizant of. *End*

I started getting into satirical writing. I was dissatisfied with the status quo of my own life and of society. I loved how social commentary could be achieved through the use of storytelling, with stories that draw parallels between our worlds and the worlds of the text. I read Vonnegut's body of work (which I'm still working on finishing now) and I was inspired by his simplistic writing style, and sharp witty dialogue. After reading Mother NightSlaughter-House FiveBreakfast of Champions, and his various short story collections, I read a quote from him which read,

"Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college."

Also, as a side note, he happens to look like a cross
between Albert Einstein and Mark Twain
I don't know why that spoke to me so clearly. I had teacher after teacher tell me how being stylistic for aesthetic's sake would only serve to make your writing pretty and empty, but to hear it from someone I admired as a writer was different. Not to say that semi-colons don't have their use, but I knew I would throw them in there just to feel intelligent for knowing how to. They often served no purpose. I looked at my sentences. Many often had little to no purpose. That was why I wasn't happy writing. What did it matter how pretty my words were when they had nothing to offer? Why would my audience want listen to me, when even I didn't want to listen to me? To be honest, I'm still working on being happy with my writing today. To be even more honest, I may never reach that point. But to know that I am trying to reach that goal is enough for me to enjoy writing again.

1 comment:

  1. First of all, I understand the frustrations you have about being happy with your own writing because writing is an on-going process, maybe forever. However, I really think that you deserve more than happiness for your writing! you're such a great writer from what I've seen--not only this post but also all of your poems :). I just hope that you would find a way to be continuously challenging and progressive with your writing and also be happy with it! I tend to focus on the venting-my-thoughts/stresses-out part of writing more than on the completeness level of it, so I think that helps me feel a little happier about my writing. haha.
    Another note, I really loved the quote you had above because I had been just throwing in semicolons just to feel intellectual and to feel that I know some stuff in a way as well. Although I know that the use of semi-colons doesn't guarantee a good writing, I don't know if I'm confident that I won't be teaching my students about the semi-colon and its usage in the same way that I've been taught in my earlier years because I think the teachers are greatly bound by the state standards and rules, unfortunately. However, we will hopefully figure out a way to be happy not only with our writing but also with our teaching through out this semester. So, let's fight through!