When I was young, there were two important city-wide exams that you took at the end of every year from 1st to 5th grade: one for math and one for reading/composition. Growing up I had a strong grasp of basic arithmetic (and like to believe that I still do), but I noticeably struggled each year on composition. To make matters more confusing, the results of these exams never came back as letter grades or simple numerical scores. Instead, they were cryptic grayscale printouts containing line graphs that represented a percentile comparison of how many students in the city you scored higher (and lower) than.
Still to this day I remember my exact placement on my 4th grade composition test: I was a confused member of the 77th percentile club. It was a one-sided statistic that gave “young me” no real information about what it truly meant to read, compose, or comprehend. But it was also the moment that served as the starting point for my growing understanding of what it meant to be a writer – and how it always begins by giving up my preconceptions of writing.
If you took any formal language arts classes growing up, chances are you’ve had to do book reports. I think they’re in the same universal category of “paying your elementary school dues” that science projects fall under. The concept of book reports is pretty simple: you read a book, and you write a summary of what the book was about, noting key themes, characters, plots, and your overall opinion of the story. And if you grew up in the 90’s, you did book reports on the “Goosebumps” book series like I did. (Author R.L. Stine was pretty much the monthly book order rock star in those days.)
Or at least, I tried to. But after writing my first book report on “Welcome to Dead House”, I remember an active effort by teachers to specifically forbid the “Goosebumps” series to be used for book reports. I never understood why. I still don’t. To me, book reports were less about the specific books you chose, and more about the process of writing, comprehending, and formulating and sharing an opinion. I began forcing myself to read and write about stories I didn’t have an interest in and I further alienated myself to the thought of writing creatively or for fun. It was here, as a nine year old in elementary school, that I started to become aware of a stifling sense of boundaries and rules; that there was a certain way to “do writing.” It wasn’t until high school that I fell off that wagon.
When I signed up for poetry class as one of my elective courses as a high school senior, I walked in with expectations. I expected to read obscure poems (especially ones that didn’t rhyme, because rhyming was only found in poetry for kids) and to write abstractly about how each one made me “feel.” And to be fair, I did do some of that. But I’ll never forget the difference maker in that course: Workshop Wednesdays. A day every week that each student brought in 5 copies of a poem they wrote, and distributed them among the class for critiquing. For the first time in my life, the focus wasn’t on meeting a quota of words or reaching a page count or writing about a predefined topic. The focus was on individual creation, and at the same time, appreciating the individual work of others.
By the end of the semester I was completely sold on the notion of “writing” as this new amorphous concept. In fact, I was so receptive to its impact that I did two things I never dreamed of doing as a high school senior – I submitted poetry to be published in my school’s literary magazine, and I performed poems I wrote for class in front of strangers at an open mic session. It was a foreign and liberating idea to actively let go of what I thought poetry was. I was radically redefining for myself what it meant to be a writer.
Back to Square 1.0?
Towards the end of college, I had convinced myself I was a pretty solid writer. I had essays and papers of all kinds under my belt, presentations, free and form-written poetry; I figured, what other surprises could there be? It wasn’t until I began learning how to write in the computer programming language, Python that I realized once again, I would have to reinterpret what it meant to compose something intended to be understood by an audience – in this case, an inanimate one.
With programming languages, the computer has no impression of understanding context clues or common sense of any kind. It does what I tell it to do, nothing more or less. Everything I write, every step then, has to be coded in a specific syntax, and steps can’t be left out. In other words, to successfully write a computer program, I’d have to operate on the computer’s terms. I felt like I had come full circle (in some kind of tragic, beautiful, poetic way as my high school self might note) – from the book reports that made me feel confined, to the poetry class that made me realize that writing can be liberating – here I was again, discovering how to be a writer within constraints, now set by this computer programming language.
But there was a difference: this time I knew better. I knew that this was representative of everything I had already faced in my writing career up until this point – the idea of learning to evolve and adapt to my audience and environment. What being a writer means to me today is never limiting myself to what I may think I know, but opening myself up to learning what I want to know.
I’ll always remember the 77th percentile. And I’ll always be relieved to know that my spot on that line graph so many years ago was really just a blip on a larger canvas that’s still expanding for me as a writer today.