By the time I enrolled at the University of Iowa, I had cracked the magic, four-part formula for acing academic papers.
1) Sit down the night before a paper is due, 2) tap a slightly irreverent vein, 3) shake a couple fifty-cent words out of my mental piggy bank, and 4) conclude with a quandary or clever twist, often involving an unexpected, second-person shift.
The Formula had earned me straight As in high school, and I expected a seamless transition into college. Surely the university’s anemic teaching assistants had been starved on the same tripe my high school instructors had suffered through. Plagiarism. Incompletes. Writing that required a forensics team (with black lights) to link subjects to verbs.
I was a writer.
I’d have them salivating with my opening hook – a question, or definition from the pages of Webster. For my second course? A sentence that both begins and ends. They’re really rattling their cages now. So I reach deep into my bag of semantic tricks: myriad. Ta da! A retrospect, a plethora, an ephemeral. They’re shrieking, near ecstasy when I deliver my conclusion — a linguistic pirouette en dedans: “Then again, wouldn’t you?” or “But I know that . . . now.”
Take the rose. Bow to applause.
It worked. In Rhetoric, Astronomy, Survey of Western Religion, and Psych 101, I had my first round of papers churned out and spit back within a few weeks, 90% and above. Comments at the top: “Great flow.” “Fun to read.” “A pleasure.” Yeah, fools. And didn’t I know it.
The only domino yet to fall was Ms. Summers, the instructor for Introduction to Shakespeare. Her class met Friday mornings at 7:30 AM. In front of a half-filled room of hungover undergrads, this graying force of nature would pace with religious fervor, spitting while she talked, decrying the loss of storytelling in modern culture. So far she’d assigned a single paper on Macbeth. I’d written it the night before it was due, based on my best memories of a performance I’d seen when I was fifteen.
Three weeks later, I still didn’t have a grade. I figured Ms. Summers – lover of words – was savoring the material. Possibly coaching other students with my example (*Note: This was an actual thought.) My suspicion was confirmed when she asked to see me after class.
Ms. Summers looked bigger close up. Her gray hair was piled on her head in a sloppy bee-hive, and her cheeks were saggy almost to the point of jowls. Her blue eyes, burning with a fervor visible from the back row, looked dangerous – a welder’s arc.
Her praise would be ferocious.
“This is the most vapid paper I’ve read in years,” she said, slapping it on her desk.
Vapid? Wait. This word, somewhere between plethora and zeitgeist in my catalog of winning vocabulary, had never appeared on one of my papers. As a matter of fact, I think it meant –
“Empty. Thoughtless. There’s nothing in this worth repeating. Or saying. That’s why you have a ‘D.’”
“What?” I said. “That’s impossible.”
“It’s not. That’s why I wanted to talk to you. You’ve got some talent, and you’re coasting. You seem to think your ability to write excuses you from saying anything. That doesn’t work in college.”
“Actually, it does,” I said.
She started to speak, then turned up the heat. Those eyes.
“Well it doesn’t work here. I’m not changing the grade. Next time, try harder.”
Clearly, she hated me.
For her next assignment on Twelfth Night I was up until 2 AM, worrying every sentence and phrase until the words blurred together and the caffeine stopped working. In the process, I realized something disturbing:
I wasn’t a very good writer.
I couldn’t edit. I had no ability or patience for reworking material that didn’t come out right the first time. Why? I’d never practiced any actual writing skills. And maybe I’d been born with some talent, but I clearly hadn’t been born with much to say.
Now, having gone through school and numerous critique groups, I’m amazed how little raw talent actually buys you. It’s about energy. Thick skin. An open mind. Caffeine. Those ingredients will take you far. Sure, there are exceptions. Writers who get published the first time they dash out a novel, their very first draft. But let’s face it, most of those people either have parents in publishing or are total assholes (geniuses). The rest of us? We work. We suffer. We live and develop as people and professionals. As we develop, we learn which of our stories are most worth telling, and we learn how to tell them.
In the end, I pulled a B+ in Intro to Shakespeare. After our last class, I sat down with Ms. Summers to talk. A fishing expedition. I wanted my “I did this because you were the best writer in my class.” I wanted my indisputable status as a shining star confirmed. What I got?
“You improved from that first paper.” That, and steely blue eyes.
So I got pwned. And by way of thanks, Ms. Summers, I dedicate my conclusion to you.
Because in retrospect, I learned myriad things in college, but not always the things I expected to learn. It turns out Intro to Shakespeare was probably the best and worst thing that ever happened to me. Then again, I guess most things are. And I know that . . . now.