On Swimming Pools, the Duck-Billed Platypus, and Writing

I write to process the world around me.  I don’t write to be read by others.  Not really.  It’s kind of weird to me that I have an audience now.  As a teen I would have been horrified to find out people were reading the angsty things I wrote.  In college and my early twenties, I wrote to try to make sense of my feelings and decisions as the world changed rapidly around me, and I changed with it.  Even when I started this blog, my real motivation was to give voice to an idea and see where it would go.  Yes, part of me wanted to test the waters and see if people would read what I had to say, but I was also still figuring out what I had to say.

I took a class in college called “Advanced Writing”.  It was a required course for English majors and the pre-seminary guys (apparently they needed to learn how to write sermons).  I remember certain aspects of that course very clearly, not because of what it taught me about writing, but what it taught me about myself.  I’d always considered myself a good writer.  I took high school level writing classes in middle school and always impressed my teachers with my papers.  That was mostly academic writing, though.  Research papers and book reports, that kind of thing.  In Advanced Writing, we learned to write the “nonfiction essay.”  We spent the whole semester course on this one genre.  It’s probably a good thing for you that we did.  Every blog post I write could probably fall into that category, though some more formally than others.  We learned to wax prosaic on a variety of topics, sometimes bringing in research, but usually not.  We learned the value of white space, when to break the grammar rules, and how to build our own style.  Essentially, we were learning how to give voice to something we had to say and make it interesting for others to read.

I remember that class well for a number of reasons.  It was one of the few classes I didn’t take with my posse of fellow English major friends, so I sat next to a guy I didn’t know well myself but who knew my then-boyfriend-now-husband.  This guy was considered by many of my more girly friends to be the unknowable-but-oh-so-hot BMOC, whether he knew it or not.  When he started saying hi to me in the halls, a few of my friends freaked.  (Yes, this is college we’re talking about.  The world doesn’t change that much as you grow up.)  I was happily taken, though, so his presence didn’t affect me in that way.  He was a science major, taking this class because he wanted to, not to fulfill any particular requirements.  He was a nice guy, and we commiserated together about the doodles we drew on our papers and how annoyed we both were by all the political debates that seemed to break out in class on a regular basis.  Weren’t we supposed to be learning to write?

It was a discussion-based class.  Yeah, we had some assigned readings (this class introduced me to Annie Dillard, which I’ll always appreciate), but the real learning happened on the day that papers were due.  With each essay, the professor would choose two or three students and assign them to bring enough printed copies for the whole class.  Those papers would be distributed, read, critiqued, and analyzed for the class period.  It was actually a pretty good system.  Sometimes the grading teacher can become some vague entity that you don’t really think of reading your work.  When it’s in the hands of the whole class, though, you begin to get the idea of an audience.

I also remember the class because of the essays.  Well, two essays, to be exact.  I couldn’t tell you a thing about the rest of the stuff I wrote that semester.  But two stand out, one because of how good it was, and the other because I bombed it.  For the first one, we were told to write about education.  I wrote a piece on how students can’t learn well unless they really want to learn, and I used my experience learning how to swim as an example.  As a child, I feared the water.  As a teen, I swam competitively and life-guarded as my summer job.  Clearly, I got over that fear, but not until I wanted to.  Then I fell in love with the water.  As I wrote the essay, I drew on some of the techniques I’d learned in high school and made my essay rich with images, describing the fear, the feel of the water, and the pleasure in clear, sensory details.  I enjoyed writing that paper as it let me play with words, describe something I loved, and also express an opinion about something important to me (education).

Duck Billed Platypus Schnabeltier

They’re cute, but I couldn’t find anything of significance to say about them. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then came the animal paper.  I don’t remember the topic we were supposed to discuss.  I don’t remember what I was supposed to learn from writing this paper.  All I remember is that somehow I had to work in the duck-billed platypus in a manner that had some significance to the paper.  I don’t remember the words I wrote or what my main point was, but I do remember how clunky that paper felt and the forced tone of each sentence.  I didn’t even want to turn it in.  It had no good point and no poetic flow of words to make up for the lack of content.  It was not worth reading, but try as I might, I couldn’t make it better.

Fortunately, the paper I shared with the whole class was my education paper.  They loved it.  I received rave reviews, and throughout the rest of the semester Mr. BMOC told me many times how much he loved that paper and how impressed he was with my writing.  I had proven that I could write something an audience would appreciate, and I was proud of that.  But I’ve often wondered, what would have happened if I’d had to share that ridiculous duck-billed platypus paper instead?

I learned then that I can’t force my writing.  I write best when I’m writing for myself, when I have a topic in mind already that I care about and want to put down on paper.  Several people, my husband included, have suggested that I try to take my writing to another level and see if someone would pay me to write articles in a magazine or something like that.  I’ve entertained the idea, but I’ve always shied away from taking action on it.  I don’t know how I’d handle having someone else give me writing assignments or topics.  I don’t know if I could write to a hard-and-fast deadline or promote someone else’s agenda, even if I agree with it.  Granted, I’ve never really tried.  I just know that I’ve learned I can’t force my writing.

That being said, I find myself now writing to an audience on a regular basis.  I’m glad, because it gives purpose and motivation to what I do, but I’m still trying to figure out how to handle it.  Not only is my readership up, but other bloggers have mentioned me in their blogs.  Adult bloggers have found me on LinkedIn, while one of my teen readers set up a Better Blogger Network group under my name.  (I love her idea, by the way.  Teens, if you like to read, go check out her post!)

I started this blog with just one year in mind.  I didn’t really think beyond that.  I’ve done what I set out to accomplish.  I’ve researched and read books.  I’ve given voice to what I had to say and found that there are others interested in reading it.  As I look out on the next school year, I’m not really sure what role the blog will take next.  I’ll let you know when I figure it out.  Until then, I’ll keep writing as the inspiration strikes!

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5 thoughts on “On Swimming Pools, the Duck-Billed Platypus, and Writing

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more on the subject. I write for a company blog as well as my own. When I read the blog posts I put up for my company, something doesn’t feel right. Having to stick to one category with limited resources is like handing me a pen with no ink and a sheet of paper. I get my job done but find that it’s just not my writing. It seems to be well written or well thought out but when I read it, I’m not satisfied. As for my own blog, I can’t say that the writing is what you’d call perfection, but the important thing is that I’m satisfied. I write when I have things on my mind that need to be put into words in order for it to be processed. My thoughts are just spilled out on paper and regardless of how much the post may be all over the place, I feel an odd sense of satisfaction. I’m no where near as good as you are with writing, but I enjoy it. When you try to force something, even if that something is what you enjoy doing, the end product is never what you want it to be. So I can definitely relate to a certain degree. Keep on writing! Blogging isn’t meant for no one else but yourself. When your post is interesting enough for others to enjoy we interact through comments and replies. That’s what I love about blogging and probably the reason why I’ll continue. I don’t need a filter here and can express myself. If by some chance my opinions lead to a discussion, even better! Great post! Looking forward to future ones as well

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    • Thank you! It’s nice to hear that I’m not the only one that feels this way, especially from someone who writes for professional reasons, too. I love the sense of community generated through blogging. You’re right. It’s more of an interaction than a specific writer/reader distinction. We’re all writers, and we’re all each other’s audiences, too. I like that.

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    • The professor had it set up pretty well so that everyone was respectful in their comments. Also, I happened to be in a class filled with mostly people who were not English majors, which worked in my favor. But yes, it was still a bit intimidating, despite the good learning experience!

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