On a flight, seated behind a teenage girl, a novelist was having a get-off-my-lawn moment. With the click sound enabled, the girl tapped away on her iPhone. Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap… The nonstop cadence of the taps meant she could not be texting back and forth with friends. As the girl tapped away the entire flight, the novelist’s irritation dissolved into admiration and, finally, revelation. The girl was writing a novel.

I enjoy reading about how authors write and their opinions on the correct creative process. There’s no end of advice on how it should be done, which varies from “write every single day at the same time in a quiet space set up for only writing” to “write when the baby’s napping” or “take advantage of when you’re standing in line at Starbucks.” Or, if you’re on a jet at cruising altitude, stuffed into a tiny seat with no leg room, thumb tap on your iPhone.

Outlines and Notecards

In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.

—Mark Twain

I have a hunch my “dumbbell English” 1 class teachers felt the same way about me as Twain felt about the Parisians. Two attempts to pass a remedial English class at my community college resulted in grade F.

The goal of the class was to teach essay writing. We were instructed to begin our essay by making an outline and to take notes from our research on lined notecards. To produce the essay, we were to create an outline on which our notes would be distributed and transformed into prose. Voila (I know one more French word than Mark Twain did)—your essay.

Does anyone write this way? When I attempted an outline, I lasted as long as I would in the ring against Mike Tyson in his prime (or even on his deathbed). In retrospect, I believe most students created the outline after they wrote their essays, but at the time, I blamed myself for my failure.

Long motivated to become a licensed counselor, but aware of my academic deficits, I negotiated an academic path so I had to produce just two essays to get a master’s in clinical psychology. My undergrad degree was in applied art (which I’m terrible at), and my master’s was ninety-percent counseling internships with the “classroom” devoted to supervision. The downside? My writing woes plagued me well beyond those remedial English classes. My insecurities about writing contributed to my failure to complete my PhD.

My academic days ended long ago. In the meantime, computers and word processors came along to minimize my deficiencies in organizing and maximize my enjoyment of thinking on a screen and illustrating those thoughts with wordplay.

I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.
—Flannery O’Connor

When I start to write, I don’t have any plan at all. I just wait for the story to come. I don’t choose what kind of story it is or what’s going to happen.

—Haruki Murakami

So much for the expert writing advice to “have a plan.” My teachers’ instructions on how to write an essay presumed there was one best way (or, perhaps, just one way, as we were given no alternatives) to approach a writing project. And these instructions assumed that my brain works the same as theirs. There has to be a better way to nurture the abilities of a varied group of learners. Flannery O’Connor wrote before there were word processors, but some of us need more help.

  1. Those classes were colloquially known as “dumbbell English,” and I failed my first two attempts. Four years later, at a different community college, I finally passed English 1A, so I could enter my junior college year. ↩︎