How To Not Hate English
©2002, Tim Lightfoot

Notes on piece: This is a piece I submitted for a writing contest sponsored by an English Dept. I think you'll see why I didn't win (and didn't get a letter acknowledging the fact that I existed...) You've probably been wondering about the Flying Pigs - as you'll see in this essay, I always thought that my chances of being a writer were about the same as seeing a pig fly - well now, you can say that you've seen several pigs fly....
Writing has led me, fitfully no less, to believe that a person’s inherent urges are hard to stifle. Writing has also made me hate writing. Writing also made me strongly dislike my English teacher.

My earliest struggles with writing came about the third grade. Slowly tracing over letters, over and over again gave my fingers cramps and frustrated me. My parents and teachers thought that my handwriting was unintelligible. I didn’t think so. I could read my writing just fine. They obviously couldn’t. So there I’d sit, day after day, tracing over those cursed, cursive letters 50 times each, swearing in my own childish way, that I’d never write again when I “got big”. Little did I know that this exercise would go on for almost 3 years. While my penmanship did improve, I developed a deep and extreme dislike in regards to the mechanical aspects of putting thoughts on paper.

When I got bigger, I still had to write. I seemed to have had the luck to draw an English teacher who considered it her life’s work to make high schoolers expend pens by the dozen. Luck continued to “smile on me” when I realized that I would have this same English teacher for 3 years. But on top of the continual reports that had to be written about what I read, my English teacher added a new burden: the rules and laws of grammar and composition. It seemed that no matter how hard I tried, I always (and still do) left a participle dangling, ended a sentence with a preposition, or used, too, many, commas. I came to believe that the rules of grammar and composition were in an intricate conspiracy against me; always hiding some minute and archaic device from my use, waiting to spring it on my unsuspecting composition when the English teacher examined it.

What little bit of interest in writing that hadn’t been destroyed by the mechanical aspects and the conspiracy of the rules, was completely obliterated by the sudden realization that the rules of grammar and composition, which were applied to me with vigor and a seeming relish, didn’t seem to apply to everyone. I can distinctly remember reading Slaughterhouse Five and then realizing that I didn’t like the work because the writing didn’t seem to conform to what had been hammered into my head. I questioned why some “great” authors were allowed to get away with seeming violations of the almighty grammar and composition rules and were still praised as great examples. Many times I argued with my English teacher (and parents) that I too, deserved the “great author” label. However, I usually heard the old saw, “you must learn to express yourself properly”, even after I made my most brilliant arguments for this special dispensation from the rules of grammar and composition. When I realized that even the application of writing rules were sometimes arbitrary, I made an even firmer promise that I would never write again, period.

For a while, I was fairly successful in keeping my promise. The summer before college began, I studied hard and on the first day of class, immediately went to the testing office to test out of English. Relieved of 6 hours of mandatory drudgery in my English classes gave me fairly clear sailing the rest of my undergraduate years. Mathematics and physical education took most of my time; neither requiring many papers. What papers were required, I handled with ease on a typewriter my parents had given me for a graduation present. I had found that I actually enjoyed typing; the action being similar to playing the piano, another task that I had alternately loved and hated since my sixth birthday. The finger coordination that had been developed through years of piano practice paid dividends in putting my thoughts on paper. So the first four years of college were golden; I not only hid from the conspiratorial rules of grammar and composition, but I also left writing longhand behind, seemingly for good. Never would I have to face writing on its terms again.

But you know, they say “Never say never”. A Master’s degree called and with that, more writing and the big one: a thesis. I loved doing studies and figuring out stuff no one had figured out before, but the writing part. . .well, you can imagine. I struggled through my thesis, laboriously hand-drawing my figures, but being aided by the newest thing, a room-sized device called a word processor. That was cool. Type stuff in once; move it around to your heart’s content; and press a button. A perfect copy!

A year of public school teaching caused me to quickly eject back into the world of academia and a doctorate degree. I found myself in a big university, in a big department, with a big-named advisor, who made it very clear that to stay in academia, I not only had to be good at figuring out the myriad puzzles of physiology, but I also had to be very good at sharing my solutions with the world. And sharing those solutions meant writing. So, it was either writing or teaching public school. My attitude toward writing began to be forcibly softened.

When I was doing research, I enjoyed the puzzles so much, I didn’t think much about the writing until I was in the throes of actually having to force the stuff out of my brain onto the computer screen. But about that time, and through the endless patience of my advisor and my postdoctoral mentor, I realized that for the first time, I was writing prose in a format that had a definite format; a format that was inviolate for everyone from the greatest scientist to the lowliest graduate student. This was a type of writing that had guidelines that were clear and easy to follow. A type of writing that didn’t seem to depend on interpretation or the whim of a grim taskmaster. I also felt the thrill of seeing my work in print, albeit in the highly stilted and technical jargon of my discipline, but nonetheless, in black-and-white and in reputable journals.

I’m not sure when it happened. I think that somewhere after the fifth manuscript or so, I realized that I didn’t dread the blank screen when I sat to start a new manuscript. I didn’t particularly look forward to the task, but then again, ‘writing’ had been replaced by ‘going to the dentist’ at the head of the list of things I least liked doing.

However, almost as insidiously, over the next few years, I began to dislike my technical writing. I began to wonder if this was my old writing-phobia raising its head again. After some consideration, I came to the realization that I was frustrated because technical writing was too limiting. Everything had to be referenced. More than once I had sat in front of a pile of papers, wondering which one of the 50 or so papers contained the quote or thought that I was looking for. Where once I had found comfort in the strict rules and details of my technical writing, I began to chafe under these stipulations. I found myself actually starting to think about the distasteful thing that I had put aside years ago; creative writing. Fight it as I might, I actually began to believe that creative writing was the only way to release the ideas, opinions, and thoughts that I held.

Grudgingly, I began to write. Slowly at first and usually only about things I felt extreme passion for. I started with a letter to a congressman, a letter to the editor of the local paper, or a brief essay about my father. Then, I began to realize that I enjoyed writing these items. I also found that writing helped me cope with the inevitable downturns in life: a poor work situation, a messy divorce, the academic’s miserable salary. Satire became my new friend and I found I could take tragic events and make people laugh. I also found a serious side and found that my words, in combination with my knowledge, could have tremendous impact in the world outside of the jargon-laden literature. I helped bring down a corporation, helped correct decades of old information about muscle soreness, and helped present new information about fat metabolism in a way that everyone could understand. I also found that I could make money from my writing. Not much money, mind you. But I found that lay magazines would pay for knowledge that I could write down - an interesting proposition when I considered that I had been discovering new knowledge and sharing it with the world for free for years.

Probably most important, I slowly discovered that I enjoyed writing and probably had for many years. I found that I had ideas for essays, short stories, and novels, just had no time to write them (yet). Through this realization, I also found that I had shaken off the earlier writing phobia that I had almost let end my writing before it got started. I had found, almost like a new gift, that in fact, I did like to write. Though my route to this new gift had been circuitous, slow, and somewhat tortuous, imagine my glee when I realized that I didn’t have to please anyone anymore with my writing. If I didn’t like the rules, I didn’t have to use them (Vonnegut is now back on my reading list). Who cares? As long as I can get my point across, who cares

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