It’s All About the Journey

My formal writing education, if it ever began, ended in the 8th grade with Mrs. Fluke. You may find it amusing that my English teacher’s name referred to a happy accident. It always put me in mind of a whale tail.

Dear Mrs. Fluke spent most of our time standing behind her desk overtop a cardboard pencil box filled with candy explaining something. I spent most of our time wondering when she was going to give me a fireball.

After that, the state of West Virginia decided I was a competent writer and that further instruction would be wasted on me. So while other, less fortunate classmates, had to continue diagramming sentences and parsing participles, my class read. (Once I had to start teaching grammar, I rather wish I had been a little less “fortunate”.)

As a adjunct instructor, I once revisited my own college essays. I cringed. They were off-task, unorganized, and underdeveloped. But they had wit and verve, and apparently that was enough for my own professors to give me high marks and pass me along, most of the time. The few who tried to challenge me generally received a (mental) dirty look. (My apologies especially to Dr. Tate!)

Thankfully, graduate school was a bit more demanding.

In my third year, a dear friend and wonderful professor sat me down with a piece of writing that I was preparing for journal submission. He tried to explain, in his own unique and blunt style, that my writing was the kind of workhorse prose that the least published of his colleagues employed. If I wanted a lengthy résumé, I would need substantive nouns and verbs and a more playful, postmodern style.

I had just learned how to fully unpack my argument, arrange it logically, and guide the reader through it with some clarity. It was devastating to hear what a long way I still had to go.

But I tried. And as in most learning, when we take one step forward, we take two back. So not long afterwards, my Shakespeare professor pulled me aside. Ms. Baker, he said.

(I like to imagine this conversation in an English accent, even though Dr. Mack is American. It just seems more authentic).

Ms. Baker, your prose is eloquent, and it serves to disguise a host of logical inconsistencies.

Back on the Ferris Wheel. Thankfully he, and probably his wife, took the time to read through several drafts of my argument and forced me to hone not only the grace of my language but also its precision. I learned so much more than sonnets and plays in that semester.

But it was not the end of the journey. After two years of research and another two of writing, I sent the first draft of my introduction to my dissertation advisor. He returned it by postal mail, but sent an email message with the cursory statement: contains several writing practices that, if they continue, will force me to resign as your advisor.

After the agonizing wait for the manuscript to arrive, I discovered that I was to use BC (not BCE) to refer to the years prior to 0. And I was under no circumstance to refer to the generic, abstract postmodern author as “she”.

I learn more and more about the craft of writing every single day. And I am truly grateful to each teacher I have had along the way. All of the lessons, no matter how they have been delivered (or received), have added some tool to my repertoire. What has your journey been like? Who would you like to thank? And what are you most grateful for?


  1. Great post Michelle,

    I also had my shared of great teachers and professors. The good news is that you took the advice and suggestions of your professors and polished your skills. I’m actually scared to think what any of my teachers would say about my scatter-brained writing!

    “Teachers teach more by what they are than by what they say.” -unknown

    Great post!

  2. Wow, Michelle, I had a very similar route through English classes, and the same wish for at least a little more sentence diagramming later. The thing is, I wasn’t an English major. I was a microbiology major. So not only did I skip English 101, I had very little opportunity to test and hone my “real” writing skills (or lack thereof) outside a campus newsletter and a single creative writing course squeezed in at the end of the day for one semester. But I kept writing (and keep writing) in the hopes that my lack of formal training will be eclipsed by the writing itself.

    Promise you won’t tell anyone!

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