I used to think writing meant using big words and fancy language. This all changed in fifth grade, with my teacher Mr. Tortoriello. I told him I thought writing was boring and it was hard to sound smart. Then he said, “Jared, you are smart.”
“But why is writing so hard for me, then?”
He told me, “Writing is like talking on paper. Don’t try to be someone you aren’t. Just be yourself and write. It’ll come naturally.”
As I’ve matured and acquired more materials for my writing toolbox, I have found that one major part of my writing has stayed the same: my voice. As a fifth grade student, I remember thinking, “If writing is like talking, then I can do that. I’m a pretty good talker, so why can’t I be a pretty good writer?” Of course, there are many other important qualities that good writers possess. Still, an important part of writing is finding your own voice, and that was something I did at a very young age.
Witty, zany and often sarcastic, my teachers usually loved my writing. Anybody could write a boring academic paper, but not everyone could add some flavor and personal touches to it.
Perfect, right? So I received straight As in every writing course and that’s that. Wouldn’t that be great?
Unfortunately, my voice and writing style has led to several problems in my academic career. One instance in particular jumps to the forefront of my mind. It was in Ms. Joden’s Honors Language Class in my junior year of high school. We had just read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” and we were tasked with writing our own satirical essay about the state of the world.
I thought, “This sounds like a blast!”
The assignment was right up my alley, and was a chance for me to showcase my unique voice in something other than an academic essay. I wrote about social/race relations in the United States from the perspective of an old, white, conservative man. (Note: I am NOT an old, white, conservative man. I am a young, (still) white, liberal man.) In my essay, I played up on popular stereotypes for African-Americans, Latinos, Jewish people, Asians, and several other ethnicities and groups. Some of the less offensive things that I proposed were to:
1) Solve black America’s unemployment/homelessness by letting African-Americans work in fields in the Deep South for free room and board
2) Thwart illegal immigration by moving all Mexican-Americans to the border, so when illegal aliens cross the border, they’ll think that they are still in Mexico and then turn back around
3) Reduce Asian-American car accidents by making Chinese food delivery illegal so that every order has to be picked up in the store, thus substantially minimizing the number of Asian drivers on the road
Notice how I said these were some of the “less offensive things.” My intended purpose was to shed light on discrimination and how we are not as socially accepting of other cultures as we think.
I wrote the essay, read it over once, and then handed it in the next day at school. Make no mistake – I was expecting Ms. Joden to pull me to the front of class, give me a medal, and then tell me I was getting an A on every assignment for the rest of the year. Frankly put, I thought I knew everything about writing, and I thought I best writer on the face of the Earth.
But call me Icarus, because I fell. Hard.
I received a marked-up paper with two noticeable scribbles on it. One was the letter “F”. Despite my initial presumption, it did not stand for “fabulous.” The second scribble simply read, “See me after class.”
I waited after class and spoke to Ms. Joden. She was rather blunt, saying something to the effect of, “Jared, are you kidding me? That was the most racist, awful thing I have ever read. You don’t deserve life on this planet. You’re worthless and everything you do from now until death will not mean a thing. You make me sick.” (I’m sure she did not say half of those things, but that’s how I heard it, at least.)
I told her that the essay was sarcastic, just like Swift’s original proposal. Ms. Joden then told me the truth: “If you want to be sarcastic, be tasteful. Don’t be mean.” It was apparent that, for this assignment, I had lost my voice, or my voice had been corrupted. I was writing satirically, but not from a place of wit. I was so excited to crack a joke and showcase my talents that I completely ignored how offensive my topic was. Looking back at it now, I cannot believe I actually did that. Like I said, I thought my writing was amazing and anything I put on paper was gold. Sadly, the thing I put on paper was not gold, but rather was the dark brownish color of something I’d rather not mention.
This leads me to a very important lesson: Always be cognizant of your content and what might offend somebody else. It is okay to be inappropriate, just as long as you are doing so in a tasteful way. However, do not be like me and write something so unfunny and cruel.
And, most importantly – never, under any circumstances, ever – poke fun at a Jewish stereotype in a paper that will be graded by a practicing Hasidic.
The next school year, I was welcomed into the world of Advanced Placement Literature with these six words: “Forget everything you know about writing.”
My teacher, Mr. Byrnes, did not mean that we should just drool on our desks and look down at a blank piece of paper. Rather, he wanted us to open our minds to new forms of critical thinking.
At this time in my high school career, I was just becoming interested in writing for television and film, with my application to Rowan University’s Radio/Television/Film program in the mail. I had ideas and even some semblance of a screenplay. I figured Lit with Mr. Byrnes would give me an ample number of opportunities to formulate my ideas and write some great pieces of fiction and nonfiction.
I was terribly mistaken. The writing we worked on in class was like nothing I had ever done before. We rarely had time for our own personal fiction and nonfiction stories. Instead, we were often tasked with responding to prose or poetry by famous authors, offering our insights in organized analytical essays. I tried to add wit and humor into the papers, but Mr. Byrnes did not want to read something funny. He wanted to read something deep and insightful with a good analysis.
It was a hard class. It was probably the hardest class I have ever taken – high school or college. I am not sure how I passed with a solid B (or maybe even a B+) but I know that, regardless of the grade I received, I left AP Lit with a better grasp of who I was as a writer.
If you told me that reading Faulkner and analyzing what seemed to be ancient poetry would help me refine my craft, I would say you needed to be committed. I would call you crazy and say you belonged in a cell next to the Joker at Arkham Asylum, or with Nurse Ratched at the hospital from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. How could reading things that I barely understood help me with my own writing?
By “barely understood,” I genuinely mean that I did not understand half of the things I read in Advanced Placement Literature. For example, while reading The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, I could have turned the book over and set it on fire, and I still would have comprehended about as much as I did anyway. And I wasn’t alone. Most of the kids in class, other than the weasel valedictorian, were lost for most of the time.
I did not realize it at the time, but analyzing things I did not fully understand helped me tremendously. I already had my voice – that part of me was locked, loaded and ready to go – but I could still work on my vocabulary and language. By looking at the diction, metaphors, similes, and other techniques that famous authors used, I was able to see what worked and what did not, and why. I did not have to understand the content of each work of prose or poetry. I just had to understand the use of language.
However, sometimes I was lucky in my interpretations of content. After reading through the poem “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell, Mr. Byrnes asked the class if we could explain the line: “… Now therefore, while the youthful hue / Sits on thy skin like morning dew…”
I looked at my classmates and no one was budging. I thought I knew the answer, since I was pretty sure the poem was all about sex. I raised an unsure hand and Byrnes called on me, with a sarcastic, “Oh, yes, Jared?” I was usually wrong, so this response was acceptable.
I cleared my throat and shrugged. I said, “Is it… jizz?”
Silence spread across the classroom. Did I really just use the word “jizz” in an Advanced Placement Literature class? Oh geez. Was this going to be another incident like with Ms. Joden?
To my surprise and everyone else’s, Byrnes just laughed and nodded, “Yes, it’s jizz. Good job.” And then we moved onto the next two lines.
About a week later, on an essay test, the poem we were analyzing was “To His Coy Mistress.” Since the only thing I picked up on were the sexual implications of the poem, I wrote 3 pages on nothing but phallic imagery, passionate sex, and, of course, jizz.
Writing about something filled with sexual innuendo, it was hard for me to avoid the temptation of sticking in some other misplaced, sexual puns and jokes. Thankfully, I made it through the essay and saw that what I was left with was a decent analysis of a classic poem.
I handed in the paper, not expecting a grade much higher than a 5. (On the Advanced Placement testing scale, essays are graded from 1-9. As Mr. Byrnes always said, “One is cow dung, nine is Faulkner.”)
I was no Faulkner, but my grade on the assignment definitely showed some traces of progress. At the top it read, “Well said,” and Byrnes gave me a score of seven, which had me ecstatic.
As I scanned through the essay, I noticed another marking on the paper separate from grammar mistakes and other comments. It was just one word, but it spoke volumes to me: “Ha!”
I had done it. I had made Byrnes laugh at something in an “analytical” paper. I do not recall exactly what I wrote, but I do know that it definitely had something to do with jizz.
Nearly four years later, I still look back at that class and those silly essays. They helped me progress as a writer in ways I cannot even count. Yes, Advanced Placement Literature with Mr. Byrnes was a long and hard road to get down, but it taught me something invaluable: If you can write competently enough about something you hardly understand, just imagine how great your writing will be when you focus on something familiar.