Elementary School Years
I won various school prizes for my drawing and painting endeavors, but was relegated to the dreaded participation ribbons for the poems and short stories I submitted. Usually because my stories dealt with mature themes that were deemed unacceptable.
I was never into horror or anything like that, but I did a lot of writing on topics that fascinated me: extreme bullying, child abuse, eating disorders, and suicide. I think these topics horrified my teachers (and sometimes my parents) because no one wanted me to give others the idea that these things were happening to me personally.
For the most part, my parents were very encouraging of my writing, and though I had a lot of terrible teachers, I had a few stand-outs along the way that took the time in their busy schedules to encourage me.
My 2nd grade teacher would hand out decorated worksheets for us to fill in with a creative short story of some kind. I would fill the front, turn it over and fill the back. She was always willing to hand me more worksheets that I would staple together to form a book, and didn’t mind if I kept writing straight through math (a class I loathed).
My 4th grade teacher too, encouraged both my writing and my art. I caught her once showing some of my work to the other teachers in the hall. I can’t remember exactly what she was saying, but it was complimentary and encouraging.
My 7th and 8th grade English teachers were very encouraging as well. In 7th grade English, the teacher called on me to read one of my sentences I’d written for an adverb exercise. Bored, I’d taken the opportunity to write some insanely flowery phrase (I’m sure it was ridiculous, I was heavily influenced by L.M. Montgomery’s descriptions at that point). I sheepishly read it aloud. Mrs. T stood in front of the class, open mouthed and told everybody I ought to be in an advanced placement course. I blushed, but was secretly pleased. She wrote similar things on all of my assignments.
There wasn’t an advanced course for 8th grade, so I was still in regular English the following year. But that teacher too, encouraged me to try out for the 9th grade Honors English program. I sat for an essay test and anxiously awaited the results at the end of my 8th grade year.
I didn’t make it.
A student teacher’s aide for the Honors English teacher snooped through the essay results and told me that I had in fact earned a 98%. She told me I should go talk to the teacher to find out why he didn’t let me into the course. He’d been my 7th grade history teacher, and apparently my obnoxious, class-clown behaviors then had convinced him not to let me into his 9th grade class. I told him that I had grown and changed and promised I’d be on my best behavior.
He let me in!
From then on, I was in the Honors and later AP English classes in high school, and though (as you’ll see) I probably could have continued to benefit from grammar instruction, I was much happier. We no longer had to diagram sentences or circle verb tenses. Rather, we read interesting books, discussed them, and wrote papers about them. For me, this was total cake and I loved it.
My 10th grade Honors English teacher hated me — in fairness, I was pretty obnoxious. He scored all of my papers very harshly and gave me a lot of detention slips for asking what he felt were dumb questions. Luckily for me, I thought he was a bit ridiculous himself, and let most of his criticism only push me towards improvement. Plus, he made me appreciate my 11th and 12th grade English teachers all the more.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. If you have read a lot of books and have a decent grasp on the English language, the honors programs are generally much easier than the regular classes. My friends who remained in the regular program had an awful lot of homework where all I had to do was read. We did receive some structural instruction along the lines of AP style writing, but the honors courses weren’t really some kind of elite club for brainiacs. Even if you don’t have a teacher encouraging you to enroll, if you like to read and write, go for it.
The AP courses are harder (for me that was senior year), but I think the Honors classes prepare you pretty well for them, and if you do well on the AP tests, you can test out of those courses in college which saves you a lot of time.
I admit by the time I entered college I had gotten pretty full of myself. I took a creative writing class because I wanted to (I didn’t need to take any English type courses because of the AP test) and thought it would be fun. On day one, I let the professor know that I was pretty much a genius and didn’t really NEED his class. Incredibly, he did not kick me out on my butt, but everything I turned in came back blank. He gave me no feedback whatsoever and the entire class was a waste for both of us.
My advice to hot headed would-be writers is this: Even after decades of writing, I still have gobs to learn. You are never done learning, and for heaven’s sake, don’t ever act like you are.
I didn’t major in writing, I didn’t even minor in it. One thing hopeful authors will hear a lot is that there is absolutely no money in writing, so pick a career that pays. I listened to this advice and began a career in the medical industry. Life got busy with marriage and children, but I wrote every single day, I just couldn’t not write.
I knew I had a lot to learn, so I went to the library (and later, Amazon) and got books on the craft of writing. I read them still. My husband jokes that I’m putting myself through a DIY MFA. There’s probably a bit of truth to that. It’s fun to pull out a book I wrote 10 years ago and be able to see how much I’m improving.
I’m learning that the best way to improve is to write every day. That can be very hard to do, but I’m working toward that end. Wish me luck!