Find the slope.
Calculate the acceleration.
Analyze the document and explain its meaning.
I gaped at the assignment on my computer screen, frozen by the terse command glaring at me while the keyboard marker pulsed rhythmically, reminding me that my Word document was completely blank. If students had writer’s block, I had writer’s wall. That last command always terrified me. There was something unsettling about knowing there wasn’t a definite answer to a question. However difficult math and science classes might be, I always found comfort in knowing that someone out there had an answer. Not so with writing.
Writing wasn’t always a painful experience. I remember my mother doing story-writing exercises with me and my brother, the two of us putting spins on classic fairytales and sewing them together. Like most kids, I loved fairy tales, especially ones from other cultures. We made up stories – so many! – about snakes singing “You Are My Sunshine” to magic toilets. Fanciful tales were concocted, silly jokes immortalized on paper. Writing was a fun excursion into my right brain, a way express ideas and feelings.
My early, formalized writing was fraught with informal exclamations and cutesy catchphrases, jumbled ideas stuffed into confining outlines. Bored, I continually relegated writing to the role of unloved school subject, something that was required by my charter school. It just existed as another chore to check off.
As I transitioned into my tween years, writing became a weapon through which, I determined, I would prove myself.
“I can write scholarship essays too! I can start getting money for college already, right?” my 11-year-old self piped up, enthralled by anything and everything my older brother aspired to. As the youngest, I felt obliged to compete with my then 15-year-old brother, wanting to be his scholastic equal or even surpass him. So naturally, when I saw a poster for the Santa Clara Library Teen Read Week essay contest, I immediately sat down and scrawled ideas onto paper. It wasn’t that I had a burning passion for writing; I wanted to compete. I furiously penned my aspirations and dreams, using every technique of writing that I knew. With the help of my mother as proofreader, I won first place in the middle school category, which came with a small cash prize. Even though I didn’t win the grand prize, I considered that contest a victory. Confident and puffed up with pride, I worked on my next essay.
Next on my list was the Fleet Reserve Association essay contest. The grand prize, $5,000, was a lot of money for a short essay on the American flag. Halfway through my first draft, I slowed my pace. It wasn’t easy anymore. My “compelling” opening didn’t align well with the rest of my essay, my word choices were weak. Reading the essay aloud to myself, I realized my ideas were either communicated awkwardly or not at all. Would the judges understand what I was trying to say? Discontented, I continued tweaking the essay, progressively losing my flaming motivation, arrogant confidence, and hope for success. With my mother’s encouragement, I completed the essay and won the branch competition but not the regional competition. By that point, I knew what writing was to me. Writing was a tool for profit and prestige.
This tool was transformed when I studied informal logic. I was amazed by the methodical thinking, the business-like formality, and the flawless way that unnecessary ideas or thoughts were pared from writing and argument. New methods swirling in my head, I cauterized my writing, rashly cremating buds of creativity in a seething fire of inductive reasoning. My writing became cut and dried:
Support of main themes? Check.
The same droll but effective formula. Even in communications as minor as text messages and informal e-mails, I ensured that I articulated my main point and wrote my questions assertively. I made my paper trail impeccable evidence of my organization and careful writing. No longer would I be composing pointless, rambling essays; I would communicate, I would be understood.
Despite my new approach to writing, there was one genre that remained running in the background of my life – journaling.
June 25, 2017, Nebraska. Seated at an ancient wood desk, I was scribbling rapidly on sheets of torn-out notebook paper. I was at a two-week summer camp for pilot training, my ultimate career aspiration. Nearly everything around me appeared strange and new, and I was attempting to capture all of it: the emotions, the little details, the people. This “journal” was one of the few times I abandoned my self-imposed rules of concision and rhetorical efficiency. Certain that these daily writing logs would stay hidden, I forced myself to sit down at night and write about the day’s events.
“Whatcha up to?” my roommate queried.
“Oh, just writing down everything that happened today.”
“What, like a diary?” She smirked derisively.
“Nah, I just want to remember what happened and what I learned on each day.” Defensive, I tried to cough up an answer befitting a left-brained ESTJ.
At that time, I didn’t know why I was so flustered about something so ordinary as journaling. I slid my elbow over my writing, attempting to cover the cursive I had already taken care to make unreadable. My second roommate chimed in.
“Nah, a diary is where you write about feelings. She’s just writing about facts.”
“Oh yeah, like the touchy-feely stuff. That makes sense.”
I glanced at the frivolously capitalized exclamation I had just finished writing and bobbed my head in agreement, feeling like a liar.
It was the next day. Alone in my room, I hurled insults at my paper. There was a verb that would have been perfect to describe the day’s shenanigans … but I couldn’t remember what it was. Without the handy thesaurus of Microsoft Word, I struggled with my writing. Begrudgingly, I settled for a simple, weaker verb, frustrated by my lack of vocabulary. I wasn’t a perfect journalist, and this unfortunate situation screamed that fact.
Still, it was fun!
I played with words, pairing them up to recreate events. The only things that deterred me were hand fatigue and time constraints. By choosing to hole up in my dormitory, I missed out on some of the funnier hijinks of my classmates. Some nights, I would trade my writing session for a game of cards, promising to write double the following day.
When I returned and my family asked me what I had done, I was able to remember the high points of my experiences thanks to my daily notes. I was satisfied with the results of my work, but I realized that the struggles I faced while writing journal entries were caused by my prior insistence on a logical, bare-bones writing style. Despite my recent foray back into more expressive writing, my writing and vocabulary are far from perfect.
Gently lifting writing out of the rusted toolbox, I begin cleaning it off. I scrub off the rust with writing exercises, polishing its edges with a few essays. I rap it against my desk, testing to see how it can be used in different ways. Displeased with the state of such a vital instrument, I seek the help of masters of the trade to perfect my own tool.
Looking at my writing journey, I’ve grown from my days of writing fairy tales. Yet, my tool is still far from what I want it to be. I know what writing is to me. Writing is a tool of communication, a way to be heard. Something that I always “knew” but never fully internalized.
And I am ready to hone it.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.