It’s a miracle I learned to write.
I was never very good at it in school, and unlike Stephen King I did not write a newspaper as a teenager, or edit a school magazine. I came to the compulsion to write late in life. I yearn to let out what I have kept in for so long, more for me to write down than for others to read, though I certainly want others to read. I am not whimpering for pity, I have had my fill of that. I want to stand tall and live my life out loud, here is who I am, I do not ask for love or forgiveness, only some measure of understanding. And if I have earned it, at least some respect – at least the respect that a reader has who bothers to continue reading.
I literally had problems writing. I have poor fine motor coordination, wielding a pencil was always an issue. Art class repelled me because I was so incompetent, I could not share the world of art with my mother that would have so pleased her, an on-again-off-again artist. I remember only one painting of mine on the refrigerator.
With the advent of computers, I have put my toe in the world of graphic arts. A straight line is a snap with a mouse, and the certainty of hand and eye needed to apply pigment to paper is mitigated by the infinite capacity to edit in a graphics program. The overwhelming majority of my work has been technical drawing for work, but even there, an appreciation for the basic rules of composition makes my peers appreciate my work. A drawing is simply easier to read if it is balanced, if composition lines follow the intent of the design, if text is formatted in a pleasing way.
I even designed the stickers I personalised this iPad with. I am especially happy of my Samurai Hello Kitty.
At eleven, my handwriting was so atrocious that my teachers could barely understand it. And I was so slow that I could not express myself. It was with great relief that Mr. Willeard, my geography teacher and deputy headmaster, pulled me aside for handwriting lessons. Despite my discipline problems, he gave up his break time to give me exercises in penmanship. Repeating elementary shapes along a line until I had some feel for the basic strokes. The basics of the letter shapes in cursive writing. I never became skilled, but eventually he was satisfied that I was no longer incompetent.
A few years later, I spontaneously developed my own idiosyncratic but legible style. Only partly joined, with some flourishes of its own, that suited my hand. But that lasted only a few years, till I discovered typing on computers. Although I can only type about 40 words per minute, I can keep up with my chain of thought. I have nearly lost the art of handwriting.
That was my struggle with the mechanics of writing. My journey to discover how to express my thoughts in words was longer, but I can pick out the turning point with great clarity.
My writing when I was thirteen and younger was as you would expect from a schoolchild. I would simply cram in facts in an essay, rambling until I thought I had hit all the points the teacher would mark for. English was no help to me in learning English, forever writing summaries of works, the trick was simply to take the point of each paragraph and make it a single sentence. It required reading comprehension, but not composition.
But history was different. I was originally very opposed to history, seeing the recounting of minutiae of battles fought and dates of monarchs as useless drudgery. Until a pivotal discussion with a chess partner and retired school teacher, who convinced me in one remark that the only guide we had for the future was the lessons of history. I was primed to treat history as a subject worthy of my interest.
Then Viv Rynne came to our school as the charismatic new teacher. He put us on an alternative history syllabus, focused on the social and economic roots of history. He was turning us all into budding Marxists. This was real history!
But then he switched us only six month before our ‘O’ levels back to traditional political history. His explanation was that this was simply for our own good, that statistically this ‘O’ level was marked more favorably, and we would get better grades. He was more than our teacher, he was our leader, we followed him and cracked down to learn in six months what should have taken two years.
And then he revealed to me the secret of writing. The trick to the history exam’s written part was to memorize the main points, which we could expand into full fledged paragraphs on demand. To argue any question that was set on the exam, we should read it closely, write our thesis, choose and marshal whichever of our memorized points would make persuasive arguments, then summarize in conclusion.
Yes, it was “tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.”
We practiced this method as if we were his soldiers, maneuvering to outwit our enemy the examiners. We learned of Lord North and the Intolerable Acts, the Boston Tea Party, Yorktown peninsula, with the prize of our own future ahead of us.
I passed my ‘O’ level history with flying colors, a year early.
Viv really cared for us. I remember clearly when I was in hospital for surgery on my broken nose (under age drinking and the rough streets of my hometown), he came to the ward with chocolates for me. Only to be shooshed away by the sister (archaic language retained, that is how she would have described herself), I was already sedated to be wheeled away for my nse job.
But then he made his announcement to us. Having shepherded us through sex ed (he said of the rhythm method that as good Catholics he and his wife practised it, and in consequence had two wonderful daughters); he was leaving us. He spent too much time with us, and did not balance his life with us with his life with his family. I grieved.
His lessons in writing stay with me still. When I discovered Strunk and White in college, I read it cover to cover in one sitting, as though I was back in his classroom as a child. It made me a better writer, but its key lessons were reiterations of what he had taught us.