Blade off the Feather

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Photography: dizznbonn

In Sweet Dreams on Auria Cortes’ blog, she talks about how her drive to fulfill her dreams went against the traditional wisdom of “balance”, yet still worked.

I admit, this is the sort of thing I like, because it’s a reminder that traditional wisdom cannot be applied straight in every case—like anything else, there are many factors involved.

Let me tell you a story.

-o-

You are… 16. Still in high school, which is a terrible place to be in if you are who I am: someone who just doesn’t fit in. The whys and wherefores are unimportant for now. Or that’s what you tell yourself; you’re only alive when you’re at school or studying, because at other times….

Well, that’s enough of that.

As it happens, you’ve been nominated to compete in some sort of international high school writing competition. You and three others stay after school one day to spend three hours (no more, no less) writing a piece in response to a question. Writing is one of the things you do well in; sometimes, you feel, it’s the only thing you do well in.

And you don’t have to go home for… well, it can be stretched to four hours.

Each person gets their own empty classroom to write in, as it turns out. You get the English room. This should settle you; it’s a familiar room in a class you do moderately well in.

You’re expecting the topic to be something about literature. You analyze well, break things down alright, even if your interpretation is off sometimes. If it’s about your typical English topic (Madame Bovary? Pride and Prejudice?), you’re scott free.

Breathe in. Breathe out. A little under three hours left.

Open the little booklet to find your question.

Your topic is to write an essay about violence in America.

That is the absolute worst question you could have gotten. At history, American or Political or World, you FAIL.

Now your heart is racing. Despite everything, you care about what you do best. You want to do well. Doing well at school is what matters in this world. It means you’re worth something.

The key to success at school is: what does the teacher want? Or, in this case, what do the members of the board that created this competition want?

They’re teachers, so you’re working with a known general mindset. Good. Whoever assigned this question was probably some kind of political studies creature. Even better. In a manner of speaking.

Essays in school follow a kind of formula. You know what I’m talking about.

a) Start with your thesis.
b) Lay out your supporting points (3 to 5).
c) Write one to two supporting paragraphs for each point.
d) Provide a balanced point of view, while being persuasive.
e) Summarize and re-state your thesis.

It’s a simple matter. Right?

Except.

Except that your heart is beating so fast, and you’re sweating even though the room is cold, and the buzzing of the fluorescent lights fills your head entirely.

One more thing. You’re no good at this kind of writing.

There is nothing else for it.

Pen to paper.

-o-

You can’t do it.

Maybe it’s the situation. Maybe it’s because you didn’t eat lunch. Maybe you’ve just lost your little mind because the deck is stacked against you.

You’ve crumpled and thrown away enough paper to need to ask the teacher standing guard outside the door if you could have some more, please. She gives you an odd look, wondering if you’re writing a book in there. You smile, and feel ill.

Now you stare at the blank page. You look at the clock.

There are only 45 minutes left.

You want to swear but suspect the teacher outside would just give you a detention, and you really don’t need that on top of everything else.

Taking stock of the situation, i.e., yourself:

a) You are analytical.
b) That is not the same as objective.
c) That is why you are not good at this kind of essay.
d) And because of (a), you know acutely (c) to be true. Just jolly.

You can’t give the teachers (board. whatever) what they want.

But you can’t have nothing to show for all this time….

40 minutes left.

Another thought. What kinds of essays did you like to read? Because you generally hate reading them, almost as much as writing them.

Well, you liked rather risque things. A Modest Proposal. Anything written by Mark Twain. Unusual products of satirically diseased minds. If they followed The Formula, they did it with such outrageous cheek that you couldn’t help but be amused.

It’s not the Approved Way of Doing Things.

To hell with it. You’re not going to walk out of here with nothing.

Violence disgusts you; you know it first hand, every single night. It’s your constant companion, day in and day out, that you try to drown out with figures and math and too much Emily Dickinson. If you could, with your Papermate Erasable, strike out every moment of violence in your life, you’d do it.

No, what you write isn’t anywhere near to objective, nor anywhere on this side of reasoned; it’s an off-kilter freak ride where you suggest maniacally that violence is the best thing for America ever, and here are the four points why, and here comes the support…. you follow the formula, ripping at it, beating it, kicking it in the gutter in a way you can never do to your father.

You have never written like this before. The words race across your mind, setting it aflame, burning across the paper like wildfire. If this is living, then you were dead before.

-o-

One minute left.

You finish with just barely enough time to scan through and try to correct any misspelt words that you’d just die if you left them that way.

You hand the essay to your teacher as you walk out, and you go home early, because you can’t stand the school anymore for that night, even knowing that your father hates it when you’re late coming home.

-o-

You manage to win. It’s very strange. You are not quite sure why. Except that some teachers are, apparently, aliens.

Over a decade passes.

-o-

You are sitting in front of a Mac Book Pro, feeling miserable because you just found out that, due to where you work, publishing a book is a dream you can’t yet realize. This seems mightily unfair after NaNoWriMo 2007, where you did manage to cross the finish line with 140k words.

So here you are, blogging. You hope to build a reader base for that time in the future when you can publish a book.

But really, you want to write and have your stuff reach an audience. Somehow, that is so like you.

There’s this book you really like. It really spoke to you. (It has an incredibly long title and is written by someone with the unlikely name of Scalzi.) So you sit down to write a review, because you owe him at least that much (in addition to buying the book).

You try to write an objective and balanced review.

You FAIL x 3.

You are frustrated with yourself, because it’s become blindingly apparent to you these last few months that you can’t write objectively to save your life. This is a major pain point, because people don’t want a biased viewpoint blathering away….

Remember Twain.

Skim the book, reread a few appropriate parts.

Think some more.

Then write the most non-objective review you can think of. Heck, half of it doesn’t even relate directly to the book, but to how the book changed your thinking.

-o-

People seem to like your review. It is a bit strange. No comment about aliens. Look into the abyss, blah blah blah etc.

-o-

You were always a bit ashamed to be a Leo. Leos are showy attention-getters, ultimately a bit self-centered, maybe less brainy than other signs. They roar loudly and feel strongly. If balance were a species of antelope, they would smack it around far more than their usual prey before gutting it with glee.

Now you aren’t ashamed anymore. (Well. Most of the time.)

You’re not just a Leo. You’re a Leo who listens to Power Metal and Is Blogging This.

And you’re damned proud of all that.

Fin

27 thoughts on “Blade off the Feather

  1. What great energy and vitality in your story? blog entry? personal story? Not sure quite what to label it, but it had wonderful passion.

    Never write what you think they want you to, write what’s inside you.

    M

  2. Mary, many hugs from me to you. :)

    williebee, thanks! And you’re welcome. Scalzi’s a wise man. At least, I think so.

    Auria, thanks! It was a little hard to share, but not as hard as it used to be. I’m known to be a bit intense when doing autobiographical stuff. I send extra packages of hugs.

    M, thanks! I still do consider my audience carefully (indeed, this piece was crafted with audience in mind). It’s just that I then do what they least expect. My best writing is based on taking surprising angles on what is “expected”. Though none of my best writing is crafted in cold blood; I just figure out which way to aim the passion, as it were.

  3. Hi, I’m new to this chain so it’s my first time visiting your blog. Your post about balance took an interesting and unique turn from the previous bloggers’ posts, but it was good! It reinforced your theme about doing things differently, doing the unexpected. Very nice.

  4. Auria, MANY thanks! I’m definitely interested. I’ve got their guidelines bookmarked now.

    Marianne, thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed reading it!

  5. First, because it’s the easiest comment to make, kudos for using the rarely successful second person POV. You pulled it off very well.

    What your piece brought back to me was the feeling during high school that whatever it is that I was feeling, or interested in, or passionate about at any particular moment really MATTERED. It was all life or death, whether it was gum, gym shoes, girls, or anything. Whatever it was, it was the most important thing in the world at any given moment.

    I had mostly forgotten that feeling. Thanks for reminding me, and for sharing.

    I like where this chain is going.

  6. Thanks, Unfocused!

    I wouldn’t call second person POV rarely successful. It’s just not always used in the right place. If you use it in the right place and the right way, it works quite well. The key to second-person POV is its intimacy with the reader; first-person POV does not come anywhere near as close, and first-person is pretty damn intimate.

    The other key to second-person POV is to remember that “you” is a character in the story, not some conceit. Respect that. Essentially, you’re not breaking the fourth wall even though you’re using second person.

    The last is that a second-person POV has a separate narrator involved. Use that narrator. I admit, this type of narrator is a bit subtle. But probably not as subtle as first-person POV narrator that is not the POV.

    Of the POVs, second-person requires the most careful handling of audience. After all, in essence, they are *in* the story. (And yet not in. A balance to be struck. Heh.)

    Second-person POV is a very powerful technique. As a result, you really can’t switch-hit it all that much. It’s something to be taken out and shinied up for special occasions.

    One of the most striking uses of second person that I recall lately was in a mainstream book about a gambler. The introduction was about how a gambler feels; using second person to dunk the reader in this very strange mindset was essential. (The rest of the book was normal first person, I believe.)

    As for that “living in the present” feeling when one is a teenager…. cool! I have succeeded in my second aim, which is basically preparation to write a novel involving a first person POV of a 15-year-old. Actually, a 15-year-old going on 60, as it were.

    (Not that the novel can be published for… like… years. But then again, that’d be the case even if I didn’t have the non-compete of seriousness. All good.)

  7. LOL- when I was in high school I won the regional argumentative essay competition. Then I went to the state competition and fell down a flight of stairs the morning I was to write my essay. My foot was throbbing so badly that I couldn’t concentrate on writing. This has not a lot to do with balance (except that I fell down some stairs, but your high school story reminded me of it!

  8. There’s a place inside me. When I write from there, my writing always works. When I don’t write from there, I have to remember formulae and audiences and thinking things. Sometimes the damnedest things push me to that place.

  9. Gillian, I know what you’re talking about.

    We can only hope that at some point we’ll be experienced enough so that we can combine the fire of the muse with the cool water of analysis. (I recall Elizabeth Bear talking about how her writing method has changed.)

  10. You’re a late bloomer. :)

    And anyways, this was a high school contest. You have to be someone the teachers notice to get entered, which is not always cozignant with talent.

    People can tell stories, especially when it’s something that affected them emotionally, deeply. Something about that turns on the story-teller. The writing that truly touches people is not about style; it’s about stories.

    Anyways, I think I gamed the system all to heck. Whether I really deserved to win because I was different is up in the air; many would call that cheating. In fact, I had a similar approach in my college entrance exams. Let me tell you. DUMB idea. I got royally screwed on that one, because they were specifically looking for the formula. The audience—exams versus contest—made all the difference in the world.

    But I did manage to choose the interesting options for make-up classes.

  11. Arachne, actually, it didn’t turn out great…I ended up having to leave mid-essay because I needed stitches in my foot. Nice, huh?

  12. I think being objective in our writing is the most difficult thing we do. When I try to be objective, my first draft tends to come out dry and void of feeling. Objective doesn’t mean barren. :-) It is a difficult balance to strike.

    I love this entry. It didn’t really feel like a blog post, but it was interesting to read. It kept my attention and I wanted to know how it ended. Great job!

  13. Hi Kathleen! Thanks for the compliments. :)

    Objectivity doesn’t mean barren, but it does mean stepping back and disengaging. That’s why it’s hard to do in an “alive” manner. You got to have a really strong voice to do that, an unerring sense of humor and irony, and be willing to write with passion.

    Passion means you care, and care deeply.

    If you care deeply, you are likely non-objective.

    Therein lies the rub.

    Of course, mind you, I am of course prejudiced. As an addicted blogger, I believe in passion. If you haven’t got passion about what you’re blogging, then you can’t blog regularly and with strong posts that pack as much punch as you can, every single time. It is a most exhausting business, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    (No, I don’t do anything by halves. Heh.)

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  16. Hello and welcome, FreshHell. Looking forwards to seeing you around and about on AbsoluteWrite. ;)

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