For my composition students' first paper, they wrote an essay based on a quote. It was a diagnostic essay, which implies that I am a "doctor" and they have writing "ailments" that I have to cure. :-) Below is one of the quotes they were allowed to choose to write their paper on as well as my own meditation on the quote's meaning and its relevance to my life.
"I think there's a time in your life where you don't feel like you fit in. I think everyone has that when you're a teenager, especially, and especially in the society we live in."--Matthew Vaughn
We were reading Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self Reliance"--his proclamations that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," and that "Whoso would be a man, must be a noncomformist." Eleventh grade English class, Calera High School, 1993. After we reveled in Emerson's trenchant philosophy of life--which went completely over our teenage heads--the teacher, Mrs. G.--who in my opinion looked like a witch with her sharp eyes, crooked nose, and cackly voice--asked the class if they knew anyone who was a noncomformist. Tara, a girl with a big voice who never sufferd her presence to be unknown, piped up and said that I, yes, me, Cheryl Clark, the brown-haired pipsqueak who sat at her desk and never said anything ever, never spoke up in class, never gave her opinion, always let gossip and mayhem flow around her, never to graze the flesh of her skin, I was a nonconformist.
I was shocked in two ways. First, I was shocked that someone had called attention to me in class. The thing about me as a high school student is that I abhorred attention. I was a tiny mouse who crept around the corners of social life, peeking in from the outside, never one to be looked upon, except to perhaps comment on the background wildlife in the room. My heart sped up, just like that of the tiny creature I identified most strongly with--the field mouse--one who's spotted a predator in its periphery. Maybe my mouth dropped open; I know for certain all thoughts fled my little mouse brain. I had no way to respond because all I wanted was for the attention to pass around me, like a stick flowing around a rock in the middle of a stream.
_______________________________________ The identities we carry as teenagers remain with us throughout life.
Mrs. G. protested. What? No, Cheryl is not a nonconformist. Don't be ridiculous, Tara. I'm talking about a real nonconformist, she said. And that's where the second shock came from.
Was I a nonconformist? I was very shy, didn't speak up in class. I tried to avoid crowds, not to stand out in them. And I read. A lot. I loved to read. I rushed through my assignments in class so that I could grab the novel I kept at the ready next to my desk and devour every last morsel of prose. I got good grades, really good grades. Most of my peers were satisfied with C's or even D's. But for me, it was A's, preferably A+'s, or nothing. So in many ways, I did not blend in; I did not conform to the behavior of my peers.
But Mrs. G said I wasn't a nonconformist. Was she right? I didn't live in a cave or eat worms. I wasn't a hermit. I didn't dress like I bought my clothes from a retired theater troupe. I didn't do anything zany or ever stand out. People's eyes trailed over me, never lingered. I was the forgotten girl. I was not special.
So perhaps my nonconformity--that which Mrs. G. scoffed at--was a quiet sort of thing. Mine was a silent rebellion. Against the negative expectations, the self-destructive behavior, the brashness, the idiocy, the irresponsibility, the promiscuity, the boldness that marked my peers. I stood out by not standing out. And no, I didn't fit in. I had friends, but they were the weird kids--the kids no one else wanted, the fringe folks who just didn't connect with the mainstream.
The identities we carry as teenagers remain with us throughout life. I still feel like I am the odd girl out of the group. I still feel like a noncomformist, but whereas it bothered me when I was younger, these days I embrace the status of the outsider. I don't want to be like everyone else. I don't want to be a typical middle class white lady. I don't want to keep up with the Joneses. I don't want to strive for mediocrity.
I remember a few years back when I was working as a school librarian, a teacher told me that her aspiration was to be the epitome of middle class-ness. She wanted to have the best house on the block, the kids with the highest grades, the nicest clothes a middle class income could afford. She want to be the best example of the middle class that small town Oklahoma could offer. I had never heard such an aspiration verbalized before, and I found it shocking. It seemed like she was striving for everything I had railed against all my life--why would anyone want to be the best at being like everyone else? It seemed a strange idea, and it still seems strange to me.
So how important is fitting in? For a young person, I suppose it is the thing, and for many adults it is as well. But like Emerson and like Robert Frost, the great American poet, I like to think that I have taken the road "less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference."
If you enjoyed this post, please click the share button below. Thanks!--Cheryl
It's an edict: good writers don't tell; they show. It's probably what your English teachers told you. "Now, now, generic writing pupil. Good writers don't just tell you. They show. Illustrate it with language. Use examples."
It's been my conundrum this past week: how do I show that Meg, the character in my novel, is unsure about her relationship with her boyfriend and that one of the reasons she stays with him is out of gratitude? There, that was easy enough to write out, but, "Uh-uh," says my inner writing teacher. "Not so fast, writing pupil. You can't spell it out so easily for the reader. You have to be more subtle. Your reader will appreciate it." *Sigh* So that means I have to think up anecdotes that will illuminate the dynamics of Meg and Henry's relationship.
Good writers are able to invest these little anecdotes with poignancy. They dream up episodes that will resonate with readers. Really good writers are able to communicate the depths of a person's psyche, the motives behind a person's actions in just a few words. Bare naked descriptions. Unfortunately, I tend to be a bit verbose in my writing. I start out with a scene that I think will cover two pages, and it ends up being twenty. Why write ten words when you could write thirty-five?
But that was not actually my dilemma, not this go around. My problem was thinking up a magical story that would give insight into Meg and how she interacted with Henry.
So I've kept an eye out for examples the past several days, and lucky me, I came up with two.
The Father through the Window
The first came from NPR. I didn't catch the whole story, unfortunately, but I managed to pick up the nuts and bolts. A young black boy is sitting in his classroom, looking through the window, a bit bored by the day's lesson. On the sidewalk outside, he notices a man walking through the snowy, blustery day. It is his father. The boy is inundated with emotion. No one will stop to pick up his father, deliver him the ten miles he must travel to get to work. The boy wants to acknowledge his father, feels guilty that he is sitting in a nice warm classroom while his father battles the elements outside to get to a job that allows the boy to maintain the lifestyle he has. But he knows it is his job to sit in that classroom, to get an education.
I was struck with the poignancy of this story. It communicates a wealth of information with the briefest of snapshots into the boy's life. Mucho impressive!
The Miserable, Limbless Experiment
My second example comes from a novel I just finished, The Diviners by Libba Bray. In it, there is an anecdote describing the past tragedies of one of the characters, named Jericho, and explaining his weird mechanical innards.
The character tells how he suffered from polio as a child and was cured by experimental medicine at a hospital. There were others who took part in the experiment as well. One of them was a man who was missing his legs, an arm, too, if I remember correctly.
Unfortunately, the medicine began to have strange effects. The limbless man began to see things that weren't there. He was going crazy. They had to amputate his remaining arm. Somehow the man was later found dead. He had hanged himself in his room. The hospital staff couldn't figure out how a man with no arms and no legs managed to hang himself. It was a mystery.
Jericho explains that he killed the man, his friend. The man had begged him to put him out of his misery. Jericho took compassion on him and obliged.
This little tidbit tells volumes about Jericho, what he has suffered, why he is such a serious, melancholy figure. And within that story is an even shorter one that reveals the reason why Jericho is able to help his friend kill himself.
His friend tells about the war, World War II, and how he came across a German soldier who had had his insides blown away. "[H]e was just lying there in agony." The two exchange a look, and the man--Jericho's friend--put the man out of his misery. "He didn't do it with anger, as an enemy, but as a fellow man, one soldier helping another."
It is partially because of this miniature story that Jericho is able to help his friend take his own life.
Henry Loves Meg; Does Meg Love Henry?
I did finally come up with a simple story to illustrate Meg's relationship with Henry. Not only that, it reveals a little bit about her past and why she is burdened with her father's death. I hope it works. Maybe it will, but I will continue to look out for these tiny little stories I've described in this post. Is there a name for them other than "anecdotes" and "little stories"?
Word and Book Lover.