The Wide Margin: My First Writing Course (A Fairy Story)

Do you remember your first writing course?  I do.  High school.  Junior year.  Part of Mr. K’s honors British Literature class.  Mr. K worked hard at his reputation of being the most no-nonsense, scariest teacher that the good little middle class boys and girls of my sleepy, no-movie-theater town could imagine.  Even the honors Trigonometry teacher, Bubba, who had graduated from a military academy (The Citadel) and mercilessly dragged his class through a unit on Diophantine equationseven Bubba! – understood the pressures we were under as we tried to build an academic resume that would impress colleges just a few short months hence.

Mr. K, in contrast, would summarily ignore a student’s protest about the assigned workload or a test score or being dinged for less-than-perfect penmanship on an essay.  He, alone among all the teachers we had had up until that point, would not even feign a display of compassion or concern.  Before allowing the complaint to be finished, Mr. K would interrupt with the same words that were permanently emblazoned on the upper left side of his chalkboard:

“Guidance is down the hall and to the left.”

Meaning, of course, if you didn’t like it, you could drop it.  After all, why put yourself through this agony?  Why put your parents through it?  The guidance counselors who could sign your transfer papers were only a few steps down the hall.

And on the left.

keep leftBut that nonsense was for the others.  For me, who relished the idea of diving into Diophantine equations, Mr. K’s bark was just so much noise.  Perhaps, he would have seemed a lot more scary if he didn’t look – and sound – like Charles Nelson Reilly.  And if he hadn’t worn oversized Elton-John glasses.  With brightly colored plaid shirts.  With patterned ties.

Still, Mr. K was a nuisance to my what-the-hell-do-adults-know mentality.  He purposely overloaded us with homework.  Endless worksheets for SAT prep.  Vocabulary lists.  Obscure sections from The Norton Anthology of English Literature.

And weekly essays.

The rules of the game?  Each Monday we were assigned a specific book (by a British author).  We were supposed to read it and then write a few-hundred word analysis of it.  The essays were due Monday in class, we’d get our new book to read, and the cycle would begin anew.

Didn’t like it?  Guidance was down the hall and to the left.

The first essay was about the poem Beowulf.  I worked more intently than usual on this assignment.  I needed to immediately establish with this cocky English teacher that his course wasn’t that difficult and he wasn’t that scary and I had no interest whatsoever in going to an Ivy League School for which he was supposedly preparing me.  My father, an engineer by profession, noticed the extra effort I was putting into the assignment; it was rare for him to catch me doing homework.

“Want me to proofread your essay when you’re done?”

“No, Dad.  I got it covered.”

“Have I told you how I got A’s in English?”

“You’ve told me, Dad.”

“Just write what the teacher wants to hear.  Give the teacher what he wants.”

“Yes, Dad.  You’ve said that.”

“That’s how I used to get my A’s in college.”

“Yes, Dad.”

“Just write what the teacher wants to hear.”

“Right, Dad.”

It irritated me that my father, whom I had never seen read a single book, would dismiss all forms of creative expression with a simplistic robotic procedure.  What the hell could he possibly know about how to write an essay?  Besides, I had no problems getting A’s on my own.

Mr. K would return our graded papers each Thursday.  I remember quite well getting back my Beowulf essay.   Mr. K sat at his desk (unlike most teachers he rarely rose to write on the chalkboard) with a thick stack of essays in front of him.  He looked over the first paper on the stack.

“Kevin Delin?’

“Yup.”

“Mr. Delin, your essay score was a 9.”

Hoots and howls from the class.  Finally the guy who had constantly ruined the curve in Bubba’s classroom was getting his.  But, while I was pathetic at talking to girls, I knew how to handle teachers.  I immediately shot back:

“A 9 out of how many?”

I detected the slightest of smiles cross Mr. K’s face for the sheer audacity of the question.  “A 9 out of 100, Mr. Delin.”

Now the class broke out in loud cat-calls.  There wasn’t much I could do about it.  Mr. K, however, brought order quickly:

“That was the highest grade in the class.”

And just like that, the class hushed.  To prove his point, he read aloud everyone’s name and their grade as he passed back the essays.  The grades had been placed in descending order and when Mr. K got to the zeros and still had a third of the papers left to hand out, I wondered if some people were going to owe him points.  (No one did.  Mr. K restricted the grades to cardinal numbers rather than integers – as Bubba would have put it.)

There was a stunned silence after all the papers were distributed.  Well, silence save for the sound of freaked middle class boys and girls flipping through their papers reading line upon line of red-inked admonishments in perfect penmanship.  To prepare us for some Ivy League School.  Supposedly.

In his Charles-Nelson-Reilly-nasally voice, Mr. K broke the silence:

“Alright, class.  Everyone’s had a chance to look over their papers.  Guidance is down the hall and to the left.  Now, why are the scores so low?  Because writing is about structure.  And no one had any structure to their writing.  So, let me explain what structure is before you repeat your performance from this week in next week’s essay.”

Here is what Mr. K called structure:

The essay was to be five paragraphs.  The first (“introduction”) paragraph had 5 sentences.  The first (“topic”) sentence of the introduction paragraph was a thesis about the theme of the reading assignment.  The next 3 sentences were 3 ideas that supported the thesis.  Last (“concluding”) sentence were a restatement of the first sentence.  The next 3 paragraphs supported the thesis based on the 3 ideas introduced in the introduction paragraph; one idea per paragraph.  Each of these three supporting paragraphs were organized the same way:  The topic sentence of each supporting paragraph was to be the same as its corresponding sentence in the first paragraph; then this topic sentence was supported by three sentences of specifics; each specific sentence contained a short quoted phrase found in the book (as evidence); and the final sentence of each supporting paragraph was a restatement of the corresponding first (topic) sentence.  The fifth and final (“concluding”) paragraph also had 5 sentences.  The topic sentence of the concluding paragraph was the final sentence of the introduction paragraph.  The next 3 (supporting) sentences were the final sentences of the 3 previous supporting paragraphs.  And the concluding sentence of the concluding paragraph was a summary of the thesis that was now proved.  And guidance was down the hall and to the left.

In-N-Out 3x3 Burger - The Perfect Analogy for a First Writing Course?

I’ve been told that a 3×3 In-N-Out burger is food for a screenwriter’s soul. Perhaps because it represents the “proper” way to structure an essay. Photo: Kevin Delin

Got that?  (I later found out this was a version of the “hamburger essay” but Mr. K didn’t call it that – possibly a result from my sleepy little hometown’s city fathers forbidding any fast food restaurants from doing business there.)

Sure the hamburger essay might seem rigid, but that’s what structure is all about.  After all, it springs from the same discipline that gives us precision beat sheets.  And we know that when everyone follows the same precision beat sheet, movies still have plenty of originality and surprise.

Right?

Well, I wasn’t so sure.  Certainly I got the gist of what Mr. K was saying.  A thesis needs claims.  And claims need evidence.  And arguments have to build.  But it seemed an awfully tight straightjacket Mr. K wanted me to don.  Surely, he didn’t mean literally having the same identical sentence twice in the same essay.  That would be crazy.  Still, I would take Mr. K’s points under advisement as I readied myself for the second weekly essay (on Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale).  If I were writing a hamburger essay, at least the ground beef would be from prime cuts.

I worked more intently than usual on this assignment.  I needed to establish with this cocky English teacher that his course wasn’t that difficult and he wasn’t that scary and I had no interest whatsoever in going to an Ivy League School for which he was supposedly preparing me. My father saw me work.

“Want me to proofread your essay when you’re done?”

“No, Dad.  I got it covered.”

“Have I told you how I got A’s in English?”

“You’ve told me, Dad.”

“Just write what the teacher wants to hear.  Give the teacher what he wants.”

“Yes, Dad.  You’ve said that.”

And so forth.

I turned in my essay.  Five paragraphs, all neatly organized.  Nine quotes, lovingly selected throughout the poem.  I turned in my essay – smugly.

I got an 11.

I shared that honor with 3 others.  But at least no one scored better.  I looked through the red-ink:  “This topic sentence is not the same as in the sentence in the introduction.”

Seriously?

“Yes, seriously, Kevin.  And remember, guidance is down the hall and to the left.”

Okay. I admit to having to be told about some things twice.  This was one of them.  For my third weekly essay I followed the rules to the letter.  In a way, it was less work.  You wrote fewer sentences and didn’t have to think as much.  (I guess that was preparing me for an Ivy League School I had no interest in attending.)  I literally copied the sentences as Mr. K instructed.

I turned in my essay – smugly.

I got a 16.

Okay.  Now I was pissed.  And not just because someone scored an 18 that week, preventing me from getting the highest failing grade in the class.  No, the scoring simply seemed ridiculous and disconnected from reality.  And while there were plenty of red-inked comments splattered all over the pages, they really didn’t tell me why I only got a 16.  After all, I had followed Mr. K’s prescription to the (literal) letter.  Asking for clarification wouldn’t work.  You’d be met with:

Guidance is down the hall and to the left.

Personally, I’d have preferred some guidance inside the classroom.

heart of darkness joseph conradJoseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was the next book assigned.  I just couldn’t get into reading it.  Maybe it was because I was short on time that week.  Or maybe it was because of the arbitrary grading on the essays.  Still, an essay had to be produced.  Now, I’ve never cheated in my life.  So there was no way I was going to write an essay based on a Cliff Notes summary of the book.  (Wikipedia hadn’t been invented yet.)

And then it occurred to me:  Writing is based on structure.

Surely books must be structured as well.  And lucky me.  Heart of Darkness was divided into 3 chunks .  (What is it with the number 3 and writing?)  Anyway, all I had to do was read a few pages from the beginning, middle, and the end of each section and it was possible to follow the story – in this case, a set of voice-overs from Martin Sheen describing how he found a bloated Marlon Brando in the middle of the jungle.

And when you think about it, zipping through a narrative this way is pretty similar to a script reader making an entire judgement about a story based on the first 10 pages 5 pages 1 page of the screenplay.  Or flipping to page 75 to confirm the “all is lost” plot point.

my first writing course scoresI received a 22 on this essay.  This data point allowed me to verify an important fact:  Mr. K was, quite obviously, a great teacher.  How else to explain the consistent, relentless improvement I had shown in my writing over just 4 short weeks?  I performed a linear regression analysis on the data and it predicted that by our 18th essay, I’d hit a score of 100.

We were to read a total of 18 books in class.  How convenient.

At some point, Mr. K started insisting on seeing transitional words prominently in the hamburger essays.  For example, we were instructed to use phrases like ‘for example.’  Consequently, I peppered my paragraphs with them.  As a result, my essay grades continued tracking upward.  Conversely, I also found that I would be docked points if I neglected to include these words in sufficient number.  Therefore, it was clear that Mr. K wanted to train us to use transitional words at all costs.  Thus, my liberal use of such words to link sentences allowed my essay scores to continue to rise in a nice, monotonic, linear fashion.  After all, good writing is about structure!

In fact, it seemed by this time that writing was only about structure.  Mr. K never much discussed the actual theses and arguments of the essays – just as long as nine quotes were provided.  But the quotes themselves could be anything – even a single word if it were specific enough to the book.

jude the obscure thomas hardyThis further encouraged me to “improve” my speed non-reading techniques.  I “read” Wuthering Heights by scanning every 6th page.  Pride and Prejudice?  Every 10th.  (Had I known Jane Austen would become such a celebrated place of plot theft for Hollywood, I would have backed that down to every 8th page.)  For similar reasons, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure remains obscure to me to this very day.  How did this affect my hamburger essay scores?  Not a bit – they continued to rise in a very predictable manner.

Of course, that’s the beauty of hamburger.  You can add a variety of fillers into it and, if slathered with enough transitional words, it will be easily swallowed.  Between rapidly page-flipping the assigned books and writing repetitive, rigid structure for the essays, I was eventually able to polish off the entire assignment – with factory-like precision – in under 90 minutes.  Which made it easy to start looking at the assigned book at 5:30 am on the Monday it was due.  Oh, yes, with each passing week I was getting more prepared for that Ivy League School I had no interest in attending.

But, the truth is that there were some books I really wanted to read.  There’s nothing quite like a complete collapse of civilization, for example, to get a teenaged boy’s imagination going.  Let the girls have their heads in the clouds over Mr. Darcy, I preferred my British literature full of mushroom clouds.  Nevil Shute’s On the Beach obliged quite nicely.  I actually read that book, every word.  Ditto with William Goldman’s end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it tale, The Lord of the Flies.

1984 george orwellAnd then there was the week in April when we were assigned my favorite book:  George Orwell’s dystopian 1984.  Years earlier, I discovered the novel after having read Orwell’s Animal Farm (A Fairy Story) in our 7th grade social studies class.  Both books were obviously subversive and sarcastic and I delighted that these “serious” books could be so naughty.  How cool that a writer could get away with making sly comments about society – from observations that people wouldn’t swallow if you expressed them outright.  Although I had already read 1984 three times and could have written the essay immediately, I relished the excuse to have to go through it again since it was now part of my official homework duties.

And the associated essay?  For the first time in months, I was excited to write about a book.  I wasn’t going to deviate from the tried-and-true formula much; that would be dumb.  But I slightly embellished the structure to properly express my exuberance about the story and what I thought it said to me.  In the first supporting paragraph, for instance, I used four quotes.  (I was very proud to provide such substantial evidence.)  The writing flowed and I didn’t need nearly as many transitional words to provide linkage by rote.  In fact, I was able to maintain my arguments without having to literally copy sentences from one paragraph to the next.  In my passion, I was suddenly aware that you could have structure without having to have a rulebookIt had taken almost a full school year but I finally got it!

The essay earned me the lowest grade in the class that week.

I tried questioning the red-inked comments written in such a beautiful penmanship that covered my own pen strokes.

“Guidance is still down the hall and to the left,” was Mr. K’s nasal response.

I went back to the formula for the following week’s assignment.  My father caught me working on it.

“How are the essays going?”

“Fine, Dad.”

“Just give the teacher what he wants.”

This, from a man who had never read a book after graduating college.  But he did get A’s.

After the Orwellian debacle, I went back to grinding out ground beef essays.  With rigid structure.  With theses that were based on reading less than 20% of the text.  With supporting quotes picked out from the book almost at random.

My essay scores immediately moved back onto their previous trajectory.

I got an A in Mr. K’s class – our grades being determined, we were told, not by average but rather by “improvement.”  I used these same writing techniques for my college application essays.  Those essays were good enough to get me into the non-Ivy League School of my choice.

And it was there, in my first term of my Freshman year, that I took my first college writing course.  It was a class in Comedy (hey, this was college!) and was taught by a bona fide playwright.  Our first essay topic concerned Aristophanes’ The Birds.  I worked more intently than usual on this assignment.  I read the whole play, word by word; too nervous to speed non-read on my first assignment.  And although I no longer lived at home, my father’s advice echoed in my head.  I had internalized it.  The entire essay was perfectly executed structure, structure, structure!

I was exquisitely trained.

The following week, the playwright walked from seat to seat as he handed back our papers.  He got to mine:

“You learned how to write like this in high school, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” I nodded proudly.

“Well,” the professional writer said gently, “this isn’t high school.  Let’s talk after class.”

And we did.

To this day, I’ve never been questioned where I learned Diophantine equations.

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