Because I teach writing, my students assume I know everything about the English language, aka they believe me to be a dictionary, thesaurus, Strunk and White, and the American Psychological Association all molded into one, a massive wide-eyed, quick-lipped creature that roams the campus hallways, reciting works by Bradbury, Faulkner, Whitman. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I wasn’t born a writer.
I regurgitated most of my essays and reports in high school from encyclopedias, but we all did; we didn’t know any better. They didn’t teach MLA or APA at that time. It wasn’t until I attended Lakeland College, enrolled into the writing program, and found out what I really was: a bad writer. I had no idea what a thesis was, what a semi-colon did, or when to use every day verses everyday.
Lakeland offered me a writing scholarship based on a collection of poems I had submitted. I had the creativity, but I didn’t know how to write. My first fiction workshop instructor pointed this out to me after class. “I loved your story,” he said, “But, you will
never be a writer.” (My mouth dropped right about here.) Your grammar is atrocious.” I remember firing back with my usual line: “I will have an editor.” I laughed, he didn’t. He gave me two choices—learn it or don’t learn it.
I had never quit anything in my life, including mastering the forklift at the mozzarella factory I had worked at for 3 summers. After I had dumped an entire pallet of cheese worth thousands of dollars and was humiliated by all the full-time lifers for weeks, I made it my mission to be able to do 360s around them in the CAT and succeeded. Writing was no different. I went back to my dorm room, opened every composition book I had, and began to do exercise after exercise. This work—labor intensive—continued throughout my undergraduate and graduate study, but not without teachers pushing and coaching me the entire way.
The best writing teachers I had didn’t let me slip by. The poet I studied with at Lakeland would leave messages on my phone: “Liedke, you have a problem.” “Problem” translated to fragment, comma splice, run-on—The Three Big No Nos. I would then run to his office, pick up my essay, find the mistake, and fix it. I visited his office at least three times after handing in my first assignment. (He would stop reading after he found one of the “Three Big No Nos.”) Did this drive me nuts? Did I want to quit? Did I cry? Yes, yes, and a little. But, this teaching method forced me to slow down. I looked at the consequences of these mistakes: 1. running in two-feet of December snow across campus multiple times in my pajamas 2. eventually, not getting a job because I couldn’t communicate 3. not being able to do what I loved
Do I call my students on the phone? I wish I could, but some of them commute an hour to campus. Instead, I give them exercises; I have them write their own fragments and then correct them; I remind them that their stories are important; I hold them accountable, and I tell them this story. Sometimes students need to know that you were there once too. You sat in a room with other students, and when the teacher asked the class, “What is the subject of this sentence?” you had no idea.
Creativity is born, but great writers, they have to work hard. I remind my students constantly that writing is like riding a unicycle the first time. The first day of class as I go over the course objectives, their eyes get wider and wider, and they begin to become that alien creature they think I am. They have two questions running through their minds: How do you even get on a unicycle? How do you become a better writer? It is simple I tell them. In order to become a better writer, you try.