Friday, October 28, 2011

Feedback Loop

It’s possible that I have not made a go of the writing yet because I failed to take college seriously enough. I got through five years of college (one of those years was only part-time, nine hours each semester) without taking a single 400-level course. The requirements for the degree (back then) stated only that you had to have X number of hours at the 300- or 400-level; it never said anything about taking a certain number of 300-level classes and a certain number of 400-level classes. I was always afraid of the 400-level classes because they sounded hard in the course catalog. They were probably supposed to sound hard, but I never developed the right set of tools for working as hard in college as I should have done. The problem was that I got along for far too many years getting pretty good grades without really putting in a whole lot of effort.

See, I skipped second grade, and I was in the academically-advanced class in elementary school for grades four through six. Then I was in the X classes—what we called the academically-advanced classes when we moved up to the big bad world of Creston Junior High—in grades seven through nine (back then, only sophomores, juniors, and seniors attended Warren Central). By ninth grade, my grades were starting to flag in some of those X classes, and my first year at Warren Central, as a sophomore, would be my last in X classes. X English was the last one, and at the end of the semester, the teacher interviewed each student individually and made a recommendation for the next level in English. Most of the X kids were going on to the two-course Great Books series, with the caveat that the courses would be difficult and rigorous. She recommended that I not pursue this course, and I wound up taking 20th Century American Fiction.

She was marginally notorious, among the students at the time, for having supposedly had a nervous breakdown. I don’t recall if this alleged breakdown occurred at school or elsewhere—though I’m sure I knew how the rumor had it back then—but the result was that people thought she was a little goofy. I don’t recall a strong opinion of her either way, though I remember that she talked very quickly and sometimes had to repeat words. She also introduced the whole bunch of us in that sophomore X English class, albeit inadvertently, to author Bret Easton Ellis. His most recent novel at the time, American Psycho, was creating something of a stir for its strong, graphic descriptions of sex and violence. Though a number of men met gruesome ends at the hands of Patrick Bateman, he was particularly awful towards women—first by having sometimes violent sex with them, and then by, you know, cutting them.

Today, of course, a random mention of a novel like that would surely not take place inside a public school classroom, but things were different then—or at any rate, frivolous lawsuits and class actions, brought by the kind of shady lawyers who by rights should meet their own ends at the hands of Patrick Bateman, were not remotely as prevalent as they are today. I was deeply into horror fiction and horror movies back then, so I immediately checked the book out of the library—I would have been, let’s see, 14 or 15 at the time, and there was no self-checkout at the library back then, so the staff at the Warren Library must have thought nothing of letting me check out such a book at that age. I didn’t understand the novel at all, of course, but I liked reading it, because the sex and violence parts were titillating, which was part of the point—though the wild excesses of 1980s Wall Street that led Bateman to commit such horrific acts were lost on me; but Ellis would remain on my radar, and I would go back years later and read the novel again (several times), and I also saw the film, with Christian Bale, and once I got the satire Ellis employed—Bateman at one point introduces himself to a couple of girls at a bar by saying that he’s into “murders and executions,” instead of saying “mergers and acquisitions”—I liked the novel even more. Ellis has become one of my favorite writers, and I actually like an earlier novel, The Rules of Attraction, better than American Psycho.

But that’s not the best thing that she did for me. Though I wasn’t happy about it at the time, the best thing she did for me was to recommend that I not go into the Great Books courses. She steered me toward 20th Century American Fiction, as I said, and it was in that class that I got to know Mr. Neal Shortz. He would go on to have more of an influence on the writer I was to become than any other person I have ever known. But in 20th Century American Fiction, he mostly just gave reading assignments and then left us to read quietly to ourselves in class. There was some class discussion, but I don’t remember if there were papers or tests. It was in that class that I discovered A Farewell to Arms, The Grapes of Wrath, and Winesburg, Ohio. I also had the misfortune of reading All the King’s Men, which at the time was one of the most boring novels I had ever read not having to do with adultery and red letters. I should probably have another go at it, though, because I am much more interested in its subject matter of political corruption than I was in those days.

The class might well have helped to shape my interest in literature, but the main thing it did was get me acclimated to the personality and teaching style of Mr. Shortz, who would be my teacher for College Research and Review (commonly known as College Comp), the following year; and it would be in that class that I would learn—sometimes the hard way—how to master the building blocks of grammar to craft solid, persusaive pieces of writing. I don’t remember what all of the specific class assignments were—the things we wrote about—but each week would start with…actually, I don’t remember exactly how the assignments started, either. Maybe we got the reading assignment on Friday and had to have it done by Monday, and then we wrote the composition in class on Monday. Either way, Mr. Shortz would set some sort of reading assignment, and then we would spend one full class period writing a composition on that reading assignment. We would get the papers back the next day and then have the opportunity to revise them in class and also to take them home that night to complete the revisions. However, if you turned in a composition that contained even one sentence fragment or run-on sentence, you got an automatic 65 and could not hand in a revised composition.

I turned in one composition that semester that had either a fragment or a run-on, but only one. I sort of wish I still had those papers, but I imagine that they got lost in the shuffle between high school and now and got discarded at some point. I do still have the big research paper that was the equivalent of a final exam for that class, though. We all had to choose a subject or person from the Harlem Renaissance and write a paper on that subject or person. I wound up with Langston Hughes, and it was not just an opportunity to put everything I had learned about writing that semester to use; it was also a chance to learn about one of the most interesting periods of art and literature and music in American history. That introduction paved the way for me to enjoy a number of different works by black writers in several different classes I took in college, including one whole class on black literature at IUPUI; and I wound up getting a 95 on that paper, which was an A-, from a teacher who very rarely gave A grades.

When I started college, I thought that I wanted to major in business management, because I had spent part of the summer between high school and college “working” at a comic book shop inside a flea market near our house. That last summer, the guy who owned the shop was going through a rough patch in his marriage, and pretty much let me run the show in his absence. I opened the shop, worked all day, and then closed the shop—Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, every weekend. The owner even had me make the rent payment for him a time or two. I enjoyed the autonomy and the work, and thought that I had a knack for it. What I did not have was a knack for the prerequisite classes that you needed to get into the business school. Unfortunately, I kept at it until sometime during my sophomore year, when I finally decided to dump the B-school—after having completed so much of the prerequisite work that I was actually admitted to the business school—and take on an English major.

The seeds of not working hard enough in classes had been sown all throughout junior high and high school, as the work got harder and I was no longer able to get by on natural ability; and it didn’t help that I spent the first several semesters of my college career taking mostly classes that I didn’t care about at all. I was a solid C student the whole time I was taking business classes, and even into the semesters after I quit the business school; but I had moved up a whole letter grade by the time I graduated, finishing as a solid B student with a lit major—quite a ways from the yo-yo who couldn’t get into Great Books in high school. But if I had gotten into Great Books, I might not have had Mr. Shortz for College Comp, and the writing bug might not have bitten me as hard as it did.

The whole idea of a feedback loop seemed to work better in my head while I was thinking about it this morning at work. Now that I am at the end of this NaNoWriMo warm-up piece, the idea no longer seems so clear. By not working hard enough in high school, I managed to Plinko my way into a class with a teacher whose rigorous grading forced me to become a better writer in a very short amount of time; and yet in spite of how much better I got by working hard in College Comp, I coasted through college without working very hard and without speaking up much in class. I dropped really hard classes, and avoided the 400-level completely; and even after college, I still wasn’t working very hard, and it took me way too long to realize that I didn’t really know myself at all, that I didn’t really know what I wanted to write about, what I wanted to say. That, in some ways, goes back to family, what I wrote about in the previous post—and maybe that’s the real feedback loop. I don’t know if my lack of closeness to anyone in my family is because I didn’t express an interest in family, or because my parents never talked about it much, or because I wasn’t listening when they did. It’s probably a bit of each of those things, and it’s maybe too late in the game to try to pin down exactly what went wrong and why.

I am working hard now, though; and even if the writing doesn’t bear fruit—and by fruit, of course, I mean piles and piles of money—I sleep well knowing that it is good work, that it addresses themes that are important to me, and that the time I spend on it is time well spent, time spent learning more and more about myself and the world around me—and then, hopefully, expressing well with words those things that I have learned and that I am still learning.

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