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When I Learned To Write

August 17, 2015

You might as well ask, “When did you learn to speak? Or walk? Or read? Some things are so inextricably tied to who we are, to what we are, that it’s impossible to separate them from ourselves. Which of us remembers our first tottering steps? Who among us can recall our first mangled attempts at “mama” or “dada”? 

You would think, although they came later, that our first attempts at reading and especially writing would likewise we lost to the failed memories of youth. And, while it’s true that I do not remember when I first learned to put words down on paper, I very clearly remember when I learned to write. Mostly I remember it because I was so bad at it. 

I’ve failed at many things in the course of my life. I take solace in the adage that “If you’ve never failed, you are not trying enough.” However, my first failure at writing was so spectacular that it has stayed with me for the ensuing 35 years. And I expect, it will stay with me for as long as I attempt to put pen to paper. I was a skinny 14 year old high school freshman. I was one of those “high potential” students. A terrible student with the ability to excel if I’d only apply myself. 

My untapped potential, more than any history of academic prowess, landed me in Ms Thomas’ freshman Honors English class. One of our first assignments of the semester was to read and critique a short story, “The Most Dangerous Game,” by Richard Connell. The details of the story are still fresh after three and a half decades. 

A noted hunter falls overboard in the Carribean. He washes ashore on Ship-trap island. A private game preserve of General Zaroff. The general has grown bored with hunting animals and has turned his attention to a more dangerous quarry. Rainsford, the hunter turned huntee, must attempt to stay alive for three days. If he succeeds, Zaroff promises to set him free. 

The story is timeless. I read it in 1979. At that point it was already over 50 years old, having been written in 1924. Reading it again today, it retains every bit of it’s intrigue and suspense. Like the best of short stories, its ending provides a delicious twist. 

And, as a new high school freshman, my task was to write a simple one-page report on this timeless classic. 

I panned it. 

I ripped it to shreds. But, not in any skilled literary fashion. Instead, I critiqued it as one would a student essay. Connell, had failed to follow the three step essay process: introduction, body, conclusion. He hadn’t started each paragraph with a topic sentence. He didn’t have an overarching hypothesis that was clearly stated and then supported with facts. In short, I concluded in my adolescent arrogance,  

“The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell will never be a great short story for the reasons listed.

Even now, writing those words again so many years later, and having written books, and articles and stories, I cringe at my utter lack of ability. Fortunately, my teacher was a much better teacher than I was a student. She did not eviscerate me, as my critique might have warranted. In fact, while I remember the assignment vividly, I cannot recall what feedback she offered. No doubt, it was kind, but designed to point me toward better writing. 

Two years later, I was again in Ms Thomas’ class. This time an Advanced Placement English class. I did well enough to earn college credit for my scores. I’ve gone on to some modest success in publishing books, and articles. I’ve been recruited to write reports and marketing copy. And yet, no matter how much success I achieve, I am always reminded that what we think we know is a poor measuring stick. Even now, I resist the urge to assume that I understand much of anything, especially about writing. Who’s to say but that some concept I’m 100% positive of today, might not be shown to be completely false tomorrow? 

I am grateful for that assignment all those years ago. For, although it still causes me some measure of embarrassment, it serves as a constant reminder of the importance of constant practice, constant improvement, and never taking for granted my own knowledge of anything. 

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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(c) 2015 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

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