Pen to Paper
by Jay Wilburn
In addition to doggedly pursuing a dream of being a professional writer, I am a public school teacher. I have the rare distinction of having Language, Math, Science, and Social Studies on my middle school certificate. This means I can teach any of the four academic subjects in any grade in my school building. This has placed me in the unique role of utility player. I tend to move subjects and grade levels each year depending on what is open and who the administration is able to hire. It is my role in the big picture. If anyone would like to buy a hundred thousand copies of my novel, I’ll consider other options.
Each of these subjects has traits in common with the others. I won’t list them all, but one is that to get grades eventually a student has to take the pencil, put the pointy end against the paper, and write a combination of letters, numbers, or symbols that communicate complete ideas to me, the teacher and reader.
I often pantomime this action from across the room to a daydreaming student using one hand for paper and the other gripping an imaginary pen. The students are clear on my meaning. They shake themselves out of their alternate universe and at least pretend to write for a time using their real pencils.
The primary cause of low grades in our current, hyper-easy, public school curriculums is not turning in work. The zero in the grade book separates the sheep from the goats or the passing from the failing. The primary cause of zeros is not putting pen to paper. The secondary cause is stuffing completed or semi-completed work in a notebook or leaving it cast upon the floor as they flee the room at the end of the hour.
Here’s where I insultingly compare my fellow writers to a bunch of insecure, day dreaming, junior high students that constructed an alternate universe, but failed to deliver it to the reader. If it helps, I offer the caveat, no offense. If not, know that I am usually trying to offend even when I don’t hold a strong opinion on the topic at hand. It is my default setting. It is a character flaw. Life bores me sometimes because I am living it wrong. This is all beside the point.
We don’t all use pen and paper often beyond possibly the outlining phase, but the message is the same. Whether writer’s block really exists or not, the words must be created to continue their journey to the reader. This year the pantomime from across the room for me was NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month initiative. I don’t have anyone holding me accountable except my friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter between political rants and semi-clever memes. They probably wouldn’t chide me much if I fell from grace and stuffed the half finished novel back into my electronic notebook. It happens all the time among our kind after all. There is no report card to our mothers at the end of term.
When we die, the unfinished novel can die with us. We tell ourselves it wasn’t going anywhere or that it wasn’t good enough. All of that is possible. It may even be likely. We do have a responsibility to put our best work before readers. Poorly composed work published for the public hurts us all in some indirect, abstract way. There is a lot out there and more each day in heavy volume. Adding to the wall and turning off readers with weak performance can’t be good. It’s still not as sad as a writer that doesn’t write.
There is a point where fear has to be defeated. There is a step in the process that involves creating the raw words. The writer has to type them one after another all in a row … line after line … until they form chapters or sections … and a full story of the intended size and subject. Self-editing as one creates is not a death nail by itself. Editing out all the words before they are typed is a problem. Perhaps this should be called Writer Total Pre-edit Syndrome or Edits of Mass Preemption. I call dibs on both of these terms, but give you full permission to steal them, Nonexclusive World Rights with “for the love” payment.
Son, I see you daydreaming in your desk. In this class, that is highly encouraged. It’s time to put pen to paper. The audience can’t grade your work until you write it. I don’t care if you are not sure. Do your best. We’re not counting off for spelling in this draft. Just produce the assignment first. We’ll do the later steps in the process after we finish the first step. How long is the assignment? Novels usually break a 50,000 word minimum. Stop complaining or I’ll take your recess. Now get to work or I’m calling your mother and ruin your weekend. Oh. I’ll do it. I’m not putting up with this attitude from you any longer. If you want me to leave you alone, put the pointy end on the paper and make the magic happen.