On Writing

Posted by Arlo on Sep 18, 2003 under Life of Arlo

My Sony Picturebook (25k image)Way back in junior high, I had an English class in which we were assigned a writing project. I forget the details, but I do remember that when our teacher gave us the homework, we all thought that the minimum page requirement (Five pages? Three?) was extreme. Here we were in eighth grade and we’re supposed to write high school-length papers. Was she kidding?

The topic was something along the lines of, “What you would do if you were stuck on a deserted island?” I was freaked, but once I actually began writing, I found that I enjoyed the process immensely. I thought up the situation that put me on the deserted island (a shipwreck), described the survival materials I found in the wreckage, wrote in a fellow student as another protagonist, and then had us befriend a tiger. At some point along the way I discovered that writing five pages wouldn’t be a problem… keeping the story under ten would be.

I kept that paper right up until my unfortunate storage fire last year. I don’t think I ever actually went back and read it – I’m sure it was awful – but I do recall seeing the big “A++” on the cover page. If nothing else, I probably wrote more than any other student in the class.

High school hindered any writing ambitions I may have fostered the year before. In my four years at Kayhi, three English classes were spent with Mrs. Miller. While not an altogether bad teacher, she was the least favored of the available English faculty and was considered an unlucky draw. (Even though I realized that, I thought I was taking advantage of the system when I actually requested her creative writing class my senior year. Most students didn’t think far enough ahead: Senior English required a 20-page term paper.)

Mrs. Miller and I often clashed. I recall questioning her about the writing style of a famous author – Hemmingway, perhaps. Isn’t it possible that an author could simply write a story and all the neat-o writing junk that was in it – symbolism, foreshadowing, etc. – was just a coincidence? No. Not even remotely possible? No. Another time I completely and totally did not participate in a quarter-long section on poetry. When detained after class for an explanation, I explained that, by my calculations at least, I could fail the poetry section completely, ace the next section on reading, and still comfortably average a “C” for the semester. She simply could not understand why anyone might want to do that.

Just so you know, it’s because I really dislike poetry.

Throughout the nine years it took for me to earn my four-year college degree I got more practice writing. Judging by some of the compliments I get on my writing, I think it might surprise people to find out that I only completed two English classes in all that time. For those keeping track, that’s actually less than what is normally required for a Liberal Arts degree – I petitioned to have a couple of my Spanish classes accepted as upper-division English/Communication credits. What? You don’t think you’d learn how to manipulate the system after nine years in college?

The two English classes that I did take were the absolute minimum required: English 111 and 211. I dropped or failed English 111, ahem, three times before finally taking it for a passing grade in my “senior” year. Oh, the excuses I could give… but it all boils down to the fact that the class didn’t hold my attention because there wasn’t anything in there that I hadn’t learned my freshman year of high school. As far as The University of Alaska, Southeast is concerned, it doesn’t matter if you have already passed all your upper-division classes (with writing samples), if you only missed one question on the English placement exam, or even if you have already turned in the written portfolio required for graduation. At UAS, you must take English 111, and even if you complete all the work on time, you can’t skip more than five classes unless you like getting booted because you missed the “essential peer reviews.” Trust me, I know.

So, during the majority of my college career, my writing stagnated. Oh, there was the occasional fun project. During the most boring of classes, I wrote half of a “mockumentary” called Space Chum that, even in later readings, I thought was pretty good. Also, I recently found a 4-page, sci-fi story that was saved on an old CD-ROM. I wrote it for English 211 and was surprised to discover that it was… decent. Salvageable, anyway.

It wasn’t until I started work on the story of my engagement that I thought I might truly enjoy writing. This was an undertaking that I tried to take the time to get right because it was an important announcement and I wanted my friends and family to be captivated by the story, not the typographical errors. And I think I did get it right… A couple compliments were interspersed among the congratulatory e-mails delivered to my inbox.

Shortly after that success I decided to keep people updated with our wedding planning. Actually, it was a clever ploy to get members of my family interested enough to make the trip to Alaska for our big day. I mean, seriously, they all say “someday I want to get up there and see Alaska,” and even though they have me up here to show them around and house them, they never seem to make it. I was pretty sure a well-written wedding journal might do the trick.

There were only 129 words and a smattering of web links in my journal’s first entry on February 25th, 2002. Somewhere in mid-August, just before the wedding, the word count was over 25,000! Using the old college rule of thumb that says a page has about 250 words, that pushed my little journal over 100 pages! For some reason, I thought back to that assignment in my eighth grade English class.

And, believe it or not, it’s not even finished. You don’t know it yet, but that’s the reason why I haven’t updated this weblog recently.

Undoubtedly the largest impediment to my writing is simply getting started. Once I get going, I never have a problem pounding away at the keyboard. If there’s nothing else for me to do, I can sometimes type for hours, but in my normal day-to-day life I always seem to have so many other things going on.

First, there’s work. Nine to five, gotta earn that paycheck, baby! At first glance, the after work hours seem like a good bet; 5pm until 10 or 11pm is a healthy span, but there’s always other stuff to do like cleaning, starting up a fledgling business, cleaning, other creative projects, and cleaning. Not to mention the distractions imposed upon writing by such innocuous concepts as THE TELEVISION, or A COMPUTER WITH GAMES INSTALLED, or FRIENDS WHO WANT TO PLAY FRISBEE GOLF. Writing, somehow, rapidly works it’s way down to the bottom of the list.

Funny thing is, I actually like doing it when I have the time. Usually the urge blindsides me when I’m on vacation, but of course, never in the first few weeks. No, it seems that need to be bored to write. On a typical vacation it’s usually a week seeing the sights, then a week of watching TV, perhaps followed by a week of reading. After that I’m itching to do something worthwhile and guess what! That’s when it’s time to go back to work.

Maybe you’re starting to catch on now to why my blog is stagnating. Let’s talk about my wedding journal again, shall we?

In the last week before our wedding last year, I became so busy that I had no time to write about the myriad events of each day. For the last few days I was only able to jot notes on what happened, and for the wedding day itself, I wrote nothing at all. That’s was okay, because I had decided to take a laptop with me on my honeymoon! Well, I took the laptop with me, all right, but my idealized view of myself writing poolside or in a hammock all day didn’t materialize. I’m not complaining, mind you, I found other enjoyable things to do, but it did leave me with an unfinished, guilty feeling with respect to my journal.

And then we went home, back to work, back to the thank you cards, to Russian 101 and ultimate Frisbee, back to episodic television and a ton of other things that sucked up my free time and left me with no energy to finish my overly long wedding anecdote. As I write this, it’s over a year later and the only real parts left to finish are half the day before the wedding, the wedding itself, and maybe a partial synopsis of our honeymoon. Oh, and the post-wedding INS stuff.

Okay, so perhaps starting isn’t always the hardest part. Sometimes finishing can be pretty tough, too. Looks as though if I’m ever going to explore writing in any sort of professional capacity (I’ve toyed with the idea), I’ll have to quit my day job just to have enough time to put in the practice. For most Americans stuck in the paycheck groove, that’s a scary concept.

Just like I had plans to write on our honeymoon, I had plans to write on our vacation to North Carolina this year. Well, the first week I showed Oksana the sights. Week two was spent reading in the hammock and working on my tan. The third and final week of our vacation found us socializing with family and watching a borrowed copy of the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD (Thanks, Karl!)

My plans to add a host of entries to my weblog were dashed and not just because of the abysmally slow dial-up connection, either. My mistake was to put a wedding entry (or four) at the top of my writing list. I thought it might make an interesting read and anyone coming across the blog might find themselves inclined to browse over to my wedding pages. By the end of the plane trip home, I had quite a bit written about the post-wedding stuff, but I still hadn’t even tackled the more important wedding day stories.

Even now, three weeks after returning home, I haven’t typed one word more about the wedding. Instead I’ve spent three lunch breaks writing about writing and I suspect I’ll spend another one rereading, revising, and correcting it.

And here I’ve arrived, in my long-winded way, at my point. Using slightly over 1800 words, I’m able to say: “Hey, my blog hasn’t been updated because I’ve been writing about my wedding!”