Once again, the inspiration for today’s post came from a stop-motion Christmas special… so bear with me.
I’ve never been good at fitting in. Not in real life, and not in my writing. As a young girl, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was my favorite holiday character, and I spent many a December morning listening to Rudolph and Hermie muse about being misfits. Yes, I’d think to myself. Rudolph gets it.
As a writing adult, I’ve found that success often depends on maintaining one’s individuality while still conforming to some basic ideals. And that rare balance is about as hard to master as it is to teach to someone else.
Educators these days are under a lot of pressure. In my homestate of New Jersey, public school English teachers are expected to produce students who perform well on standardized writing tests. Most of the time, standardized tests mean five paragraph essays, and all that structure leaves very little room for creativity. In some classrooms, the teaching of writing has been relegated to the handing out of graphic organizers with boxes labeled “Intro: Hook” and “First Paragraph: Topic Sentence.” The kids are successful if they simply fill in the blanks.
To be fair, it’s not necessarily the teacher’s fault that individuality and joy of creation are so regularly sucked out of writing instruction. In order to teach anything effectively, standards must be set. If I was so afraid of stifling my students’ creativity that I proclaimed every finished writing assignment worthy of an “A,” I would be doing everyone in my classroom a major disservice.
The thought process here is both simple and logical. Stage One: spend a few years allowing teachers to drill the basics into you. Stage Two: Take those basics and twist them into your own original voice.
The problem is, we have no way of knowing just how many potentially talented writers lose their love of the craft before they ever make it to Stage Two. How many never learn to stand out, because they were never first able to fit in?
As I said, fitting in was never my strong suit. When I took “Intro to Creative Writing” during my freshman year of college, I began to craft a story about a snobby young woman who wanted to impress other snobby young women by inviting Satan, Prince of Darkness—yes, that Satan—to her dinner party. It was so different from anything the other students had produced so far. I thought it was brilliant.
But when I read the first two pages to my college writing teacher, he promptly told me to change direction.
“You can’t write about Satan,” he said. “Guys like Milton have already done Satan too well. And you’re not Milton.”
A few of the other students tried to stick up for me, but our teacher held firm.
“You’ve got to master the basics,” he said. “Write a real story, with real characters. Once you’ve nailed that, you can take a few more risks.”
In the end, I changed Satan to a recently-released-from-prison serial killer, and wrote a B+ story that I didn’t care for very much.
I don’t believe my teacher was wrong to tell me not to write about Satan. At that stage of the game, he didn’t know what my abilities were… and he was right to tell me to write about real people, rather than mythological creatures who might come across as cartoons. Now that I’m a teacher of writing, I could see myself giving the exact same instruction.
But on the other hand, I did not write the story I wanted to write. And I became so obsessed with conforming to a certain ideal that for many years, I lost what was unique about my own writing voice. The process of finding that voice again has, so far, taken the better part of a decade. And when I do eventually find it again, I’ll let you know.
As teachers of writing, we cannot throw out our standards. But at the same time, we must not sacrifice each student’s individuality for the sake of a five paragraph essay, or by-the-book short story.
In closing, I’ll leave you with the immortal words of a very wise reindeer: “What’s the matter with misfits?/ That’s where we fit in.”
That’s where we fit in, indeed.
Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site saragoas.com has more examples of her work.