Cards on the table, I’m an English teacher. 11th and 12th grade to be precise. Thane, due to this (amongst other things, such as our friendship), asked me to give some insight into the world of writing, which terrified me. To be fair, it’s summer break and procrastination is my modus operandi at this time, but just the thought of giving advice to whoever chooses to read something like this is enough to make me stammer just a bit.
So here we go, my advice on writing. By the end of this piece, you’re going to get the most important rule for writing. This is the best rule for anyone wanting to write, whether academically or for their soul or to publish. This will be the best advice I can give.
In the third grade, I began to learn cursive. In Ohio, students dread this. Cursive is weird, it’s unfamiliar, letters are connected and sometimes changed, and we’d only just mastered printing three months prior, so why change it? We didn’t have a choice, though, because we were third-graders, and that’s what we learned.
To put it bluntly, my cursive sucked. To be fair to my cursive, my printing sucked worse. Or maybe they sucked equally. I’m not really sure, because I got dreaded check-minuses on my grade cards. My parents took it stoically, maybe hoping that this meant I was to become a doctor and allow them to live in the lap of luxury during their golden-years while I was performing brain surgery on famous people and driving a Porsche. Imagine their surprise when 13 years later I became an English teacher and drove a Mitsubishi. Sorry mom and Dad.
I soldiered on through primary and secondary school until 11th grade when one day we had a substitute teacher in English class. She was in her late eighties, with a tiny, grandmotherly voice and a sense of love that emanated from her as she paced the rows to make sure we were doing our work. Although I don’t remember the lesson, I do recall that we were writing extended responses; in cursive. She came up over my left shoulder and looked at my work and said one of those teacher-esque lines that I’ll never forget, “Oh, Michael, your handwriting is beautiful.”
It can be assumed that I stared at her with incredulous wonder, looked back at my chicken-scratch cursive, then back to her. I faintly remember snorting out something like, “really?” and thinking to myself that her eyesight must be going now, she was pretty old. She smiled and reaffirmed her statement before reminding me that all of my letters should touch each line on the paper, lest the r’s get jealous of the e’s and whatnot. Now, I’m not sure if that’s true, since I’m vaguely aware that mechanical pencils don’t imbue their scratchings with life, but her small compliment and kind criticism stays with me to this day, some 13 years later.
I went to college two years later, and unlike my peers, I still used a notebook and pen to take notes. Laptops were too distracting to use, but a notebook was fine, even when the margins were filled with doodles and little lines of poem. I printed my notes, though, forsaking the beauty of my cursive for the swiftness of printing and quasi-shorthand.
This method of writing continued into my early teaching years, too. But, as I graded assignments from young men who reminded me of myself at that time, I saw the ugliness of their handwriting and compared it to mine. What was I doing? Was I willing to set the example that lazy handwriting was okay? Is that who I was going to choose to be? All over simple convenience?
One day, during a creative writing class as I set my students to working, I started writing in cursive in my journal. I wrote, over and over, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” My cursive was poor, unpracticed, not remotely polished. But, I stuck with it and began integrating such writing into my personal and professional work. Over time, it grew stronger.
I knew I was doing well when, while writing a check to my mechanic, he said, “Man, your handwriting is good.”
Damn right, I thought proudly as I signed my signature with a self-assured flourish. I’m an English teacher with good writing. Look at me now, Mom and Dad! No more check-minuses in my future.
I noticed though, something odd happening as I wrote. I’d slowed down. My cursive writing forced me to pause a bit as I wrote and consider each word. And due to that, I noticed that transcribing my work to electronic formats, it was much easier to revise because I’d taken such care in initially writing it. In some ways, this is backward. Cursive writing is supposed to speed you up, and I can say that I’m slowly getting quicker, but the speed at which I write in cursive is nothing compared to my printing, when I have to subject myself to such plebian levels of scrivening.
This brings me to what I want to teach you, now. To paraphrase Stephen King in his book 11/22/63, every English teacher has a book hidden in their desk that they’re waiting to finish and publish. And I’d expand that to many more professions, to be honest, because we all have a story to tell, we’re just unwilling to do so. But now, when I put pen to paper and write for me, I take my time and write whatever comes to me. Most of the time it’s terrible, barely fit to line a hamster cage with, but with some work, some revision, and some grit, it can become something passable.
I haven’t written a book yet, but I’m working on it. I’m listening to all of the advice from greats such as Mark Twain (“write what you know”) and Hemingway (“Writing is easy, you just sit at a typewriter and bleed.”). But I’ve found that the advice I give to creative writing students, born of necessity because I had to give this advice to myself once upon a time as I was relearning cursive, is the most important.
That’s it! That’s all of the advice you need. Write and write and write and write! And when you’re stuck, restart and write some more! Because it’s not important to get it right on your first try, that’s what revision and friends and editors are for. Getting it one paper is the first step. So, quit making excuses, quit beating around the bush, quit saying to others that “I’ve got a novel in the works, I just don’t know where I’m going with it right now.”
-Michael Eyler (English Teacher, King of Plundering)