School lets out for summer in about a month and I still recall my golden days of freedom after the last bell. Remember that senior thesis paper we all had to write? Back in 1986, my English teacher, Mrs. Marsland, assigned our class a paper entitled, The Meaning of Success. We read 3 biographies of our own choosing about successful people and then wrote our papers as the final assignment for the class. I was an A student so I figured I had this one in the bag and that may have led me to be a little brash.
Leading up to that paper, I remember a lot of lessons about footnotes and bibliographies. Hours of class time was spent on the technical aspects of writing. What I don’t remember was any discussions on brain storming or how to form a coherent idea. I don’t remember how we were supposed to transform 3 disconnected biographies about people we deemed successful into that thesis. But, I know what I did.
As a 17-year-old girl in rural Mid-America where some boys went to college and girls aspired to marry rich farm boys, I was a little bit of a rebel. At 17, I was determined to go to college for the sole purpose of getting the hell out-of-town. Luckily, one of the founding families of my small town set up a scholarship fund for kids like me and I was allowed to go. But, before that, I had to write that last high school paper.
My dad and I share a love of reading and he introduced me to the public library when I was a pre-teen. Our town library was a sparkling new, one story, pre-fabricated box of a building about the size of the modern great room in a 3,000 square foot custom home without the vaulted ceiling. Well, I didn’t want to write my thesis paper based on one of the dusty biographies in our school library. I was sure Mrs. Marsland had read them all cover-to-cover and had read every conceivable research paper based on each of them. So I headed to our tiny public library for some fresh material and hoped to find some bios with a little shock value.
My friend Laura’s mom was the librarian so I put on my polite face as I answered all the standard questions about school and family life and then asked for directions to the biographies. Mrs. Montague stood over my shoulder for a while as I perused the chest-high faux wood shelf for something controversial. She made suggestions based on the choices her older daughters had made and proudly told me that Laura was half way through her second biography. A subtle hint that I’d better get started, I think. She eventually wandered off to do librarian stuff and I sat down on the floor to get a better view.
I left the library with three biographies that day and Mrs. Montague with a look of concern on her face. I checked out the life stories of John Belushi, Marilyn Monroe, and Jesus of Nazareth and my failure to conform was rewarded with a C+. Fortunately, I had already been accepted to Playboy Magazine’s #16-rated party school in the nation at that time, good old Southern Illinois University.
The point I tried to make with my less than effective thesis was that success in life, as it is in writing, is a subjective matter. One person’s definition can have little meaning to someone else. I choose three people whose common bond was untimely death. They were three people who under separate definitions could be deemed successful. Webster’s defines success as the following:
suc·cess -\sək-ˈses\, noun, Latin successus, from succedere, 1537
All three were famous, two amassed some wealth along the way, and that last guy was the catalyst for a world-wide religion so I think favor and eminence apply. Now it’s true John and Marilyn’s successes came to an abrupt halt in their failure to go on living but it’s hard to dispute the success of a guy whose death was just the middle of the story. So, my C-plus paper was not a success, but it makes me wonder. How can we do a better job of teaching the process of writing? The technical stuff is important but what about creative thinking.
It would be nice if, like Harry Potter, we could just tap a wand on our temple, recite an incantation, and swirl our thoughts into a bowl of water to share but we muggles have to practice. We need to develop our craft and learn from one another. The writing community has it figured out and the evidence appears in the multitude of blogs and web sites on writing. But, who is teaching the teachers how to write or at least, how to teach writing? Who decides which is better: a well-structured mechanical piece that follows a predetermined theme or a meandering but creative fresh-perspective? Well, in my case, Mrs. Marsland did.
So, at 42, I am thrilled to find myself still learning about the craft that I have always loved and I hope that the kids sitting in their classrooms for a few more weeks are encouraged to take a little creative license now and then.