Monday, December 24, 2007

Inspirationally Challenged

During my ever-s0-brief stint in college, I had problems with, of all things, English.

That's a little embarrassing to admit now, but it's true.  I struggled with English.  Not so much the class itself, but the assignments.  They didn't seem to be much related to English as a language, and they certainly didn't do much to enrich my command of it either.  There were a series of papers, given by a young woman with thick glasses who was, as far as I could tell, trying to assert her position in the class over the students.  In retrospect, this was likely because she wasn't very much older than we were, was a bit mousy and mealy-mouthed, and not very intimidating or commanding as a classroom presence.

At any rate, she issued stupid assignments, didn't provide any instruction, never taught from a textbook (and if there was one I can't even recall it anymore), and took every opportunity to make sure we were reminded she was in charge.  She took a particular shine to me.  I was going through some personal things at the time, and wasn't the best student in the class.  She wanted to make sure I understood there would be no leniency with her.  She got the message across, loud and clear.

At any rate, one of those particular assignments which I didn't understand (and still don't twenty-odd years later) was for us to write a paper about how to do something.  It could be anything, she told us, but had to be the instructions on how to do something.  The style we took -- instructional, procedural, technical -- was up to us.  It had to be so many words, typed with thus-and-such line spacing, page numbers here, name and title there, yadda yadda, blah blah blah.  We had something like a week or two to do it, so it shouldn't have presented any problems.

Except I wasn't a very good student, and I'm really bad about being told what I have to write about.  When you give me confining parameters, I go blank. This was no exception.  I couldn't think of a single topic about which I knew enough to write a "how-to" manual.  I also don't like being told how many words it has to be.  Margins, line spacing, all the formatting?  Fine.  I can live with that, although I must confess, as an artist, aesthetics are likely more important to me than most.  But I can handle those aspects of the assignment.  The topical assignment?  Well, that sucks, because what you think is interesting and what I want to write about may not be in alignment.

So, I stewed about it.  Since I was young and fairly inexperienced with anything but schoolwork, I considered asking someone else.  But, that would be even more restrictive.  I'd be relaying information from a third party, information I probably wasn't familiar with.  And I wasn't very good at "putting things in my own words" (that was a real buzz phrase when I was in school).  So asking for input was essentially out.

Finally, a couple of nights before the assignment was due, I decided to write the paper on how to write a paper.  I ground away at it over the next couple of nights, along with my other assignments, and I turned it in on time ... one of the rare occasions when I did so.

When we got our papers back a few days later with grades, there were a few the instructor held aside.  She told us before she gave them back, she wanted to read some of them aloud and anonymously to show how the different approaches to the blah blah blah were yadda yadda, and how blah and yadda were blah yadda'd.  Okay, whatever.

She grabs the first one off the stack and sets her unattractive backside on her beat up old schoolmarm desk, looks at us all and says, "I don't like when people write how-to papers about how to write how-to papers.  I think it's a cop-out and shows a real lack of creativity, and generally I give it an 'F' without even reading it."

There I sat, filling my Fruit-of-the-Looms with rice pudding, hearing I'd just been given an "F" outright, without consideration, for doing something I thought was incredibly original and creative, because it showed a lack of originality and creativity.  And she'd never bothered to tell us the topic was off-limits, either.  She never gave us the rules.  (Bitch.)

She continued, "... but this one's really well done, and I thought I'd read it for all of you to show you how the style was addressed."  She then read my paper to an appreciative audience who all giggled at the appropriate times, and gave only positive feedback.  No one said anything negative, and no one knew it was mine.  Unless the beet-red color of my face and sheets of nervous sweat running down my face were a giveaway.

Anyway, at the end of it all, I got an "A-", marked down from an "A" because I didn't do an original topic.  I stopped and considered asking her what how-to article I could have written that hasn't, somewhere, already been written to make it original, but refrained.  What could an 18-year-old college student write about that hasn't been written about before?  The stupidity of her statement gave me clear insight, even then, to the mentality of the person I was dealing with.  So, I took my low "A" and left in peace.

As an aside, I ended up failing the class for not turning in an assignment by the deadline for the umpteenth time, but that's neither here nor there.

The point, if you can use that word here, of this post is, right now, I'm feeling very much the same lack of inspiration I felt when I faced that mousy, hard-assed instructor with thick glasses and a chip on her shoulder all those years ago.

I'm starting a second novel.  I'm using characters I'm familiar with, because I just finished a novel with them in it.  I have a general idea for the story, and I thought I had a plot, too, but danged if I do.  When I looked at it after the initial excitement wore off ... well, I wasn't real fond of the plot after all.  So now I'm three installments into a serial novel which doesn't have much to support it.

This probably isn't a problem for good writers.  Weak writers, inferior writers, however, are easily flustered and put off from their initial stories.  We flee instead of seeing what can be done with what we have -- trying to make it better or revising as necessary.  And weak, inferior writers use the snag as an excuse to stop writing.  Good writers, on the other hand, probably don't start writing until they have the general plot worked out in their heads (at least) and are excited and happy with the direction it's going.

I am not one of those writers.

So, I know a few of you have come here hoping for the next installment.  And I really wanted to give it to you -- really, I did.  I just ... can't right now.  I don't have it, because I haven't written it, because I don't like the plot my wife and I dreamed up as much as I thought I did.

Fortunately for me, it's Christmas Eve, and no one's likely to be around to notice, but when you get back, you'll find my justification.  Just like that English teacher, so long ago, you'll have to decide if this lack of creativity should be dismissed before it's even read, given the worst of all possible assessments and discarded.  For what it's worth, I'm telling you the God's-honest truth, and I'm humbly sorry for it.  If I manage to rescue the story, I'll come back and continue it.  If I don't, I'll probably remove the old installments and go forward with some new ones ... after I have a plot worked out and like it.

Or maybe I'll just write posts telling you how to write posts for a blog.  Would that be worth reading?

God bless and Merry Christmas, everyone.


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