The scene: More than fifty years ago. Sixth grade.
The teacher hunches over me, her beady eyes staring down at my open composition notebook. My head bows as my chin rests on a clenched fist. I blink back tears as my cheeks flush with maroon embarrassment. The lined paper: filled with words and covered in red marks.
“It’s not good enough!” she barks over my shoulder.
Her harsh words still sting, lingering in my memory.
This incident, along with many other similar ones, defined my life as a writer. Painful would be a nice way to describe it.
So, how and why did I even think to write a 300-page book?
Well, I blame a school diagnostician. She was the lady who called my then-seven-year-old son, Nicholas, “The worst child I’ve seen in twenty years of teaching.” From one test and her narrow-minded point of view, I was told Nicholas had a low IQ and no strengths.
The label, however, didn’t limit his achievement—unlike my sixth-grade teacher from long ago. This year, in 2017, Nicholas completed his Ph.D. (D.Phil) from Oxford University. His unexpected, inspiring learning journey drove me to challenge my fears and put his story—and mine—to paper.
Writing our story began by simply retelling. I knew it was a good story, but my writing was dull. I needed to make it great.
I joined a few writing groups, and then took some classes at the local arts center. That’s where I met another writer and young editor. After she thoughtfully workshopped my assignments in class, we connected.
“Let me know if I can help,” she suggested one day after class, overhearing me discuss my book.
Like that, we became a team. The young and the old. I wrote and she edited, believing in both me and my writing.
“Show, don’t tell,” she told me over and over again. And I did. I wrote and re-wrote. She crossed out paragraphs, emphasized thematic elements, reworked characters. All was done in a positive, encouraging manner—something I had never experienced before. And, for the first time, it made me excited to write.
Writing is like making bread. Yeast needs to rest in order to rise. Writing takes time to mull over an idea, set the scene, and use powerful words to display emotion.
Most importantly, being an author changed the way I read. I questioned, What makes this writing so exciting? Why did the author do this? What words has this author used that make me want to re-read? How can I do that? Every book became a mentor text.
Writing is a lifelong skill, but I feel like I’m only beginning.
So, fellow writers and teachers, I leave you with this advice:
For students: Write, write, write. Read, read, read.
For teachers: Write alongside students. Read, read, read. Encourage and praise students’ writing. Use mentor texts. Find the “beauty and brilliance” in a student’s piece, as praise enhances writing. Our children are all beginner writers. Harsh criticism destroys the joy of even the desire to write.
As for my sixth-grade teacher, I’ve relegated her to the trash and replaced her with my young editor’s voice, “Yes, Lois, you can write!” My book, Reversed: A Memoir, is due out in March 2018.