At first, I thought it was just a trick of the light. It was just a bad week, the professor is just biased, I misunderstood the prompt….But as one grade turned into two, and fall quarter became winter, I looked a little closer at what I had initially dismissed as just an illusion, and sure enough, there was something there. A barrier that I couldn’t get through no matter how hard I tried: an invisible, but very real and unbreakable B+ ceiling for all of my papers.
In high school, I considered myself a relatively strong writer, so when I came to college and received only assessments of mediocrity for every piece of writing I produced, I was confused. I attributed my inability to break through the B+ ceiling to the fact that Hum and Sosc papers were not conducive to me truly expressing my writing style.
I understood “good writing” to be pieces that included some magnificent, glorious (while simultaneously borderline puke-inducing and cheesy) ending, with elaborate metaphors painting beautiful pictures and splashes of color in the reader’s eyes. I thought that when people complimented my writing, that dramatic ending was what they admired.
The idea of “good writing,” however, became more difficult to define when I was trying to learn what it meant to be a good writer. The immediate analogy that came to mind was that just as a good artist has command over her materials, a writer is someone who has command over or mastery of her language. But what exactly does that mean?
“My dear, I don’t give a damn.” Now that was good writing. I remember sitting in the basement of my house, reading those words, and having my heart broken, shattered into a million pieces. Any hope I had that Rhett Butler would finally stop acting like he doesn’t care about Scarlett O’Hara anymore and tell her he still loved her, that he always had and he always will, was completely extinguished by the most heart-wrenching breakup line in the literary world.
A little melodramatic, I must admit. But it was the honest reaction that my 14-year-old self had; I remember wondering how mere words on a page could move me to such emotion and concluded that part of “good writing” was language that moves.
One day, a friend of mine pointed me to a girl that he thought was a good writer. I read some of her writing, but initially wasn’t sure why it was considered “good writing.” Her sentences didn’t have the beautifully poetic flow of Fitzgerald, nor did they use any special words that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. Yet somehow it kept me engaged, and by the end, I understood exactly what she was trying to explain, and I could tell there was something very masterful about the way she communicated her point.
Upon reflecting on these various examples, I realized how inaccurate I was to think that the only way I could demonstrate “good writing” was to include grandiose sentences and ideas…the kind of writing you expect to be coupled with angels descending from heaven and doves filling the air, complete with an epic brass melody in the background. Sentences with phrases like, “and the depths of her frozen soul emanates a coarse beauty that not even the speck of dust dancing helplessly in the icy winter winds can begin to describe…” Honestly, what is that even trying to say?
In my own life, I noticed that I produced my best writing when I wrote about things that were natural developments of everyday thought processes, such as lessons that I had learned or things that frustrated me. It happened when I simply recorded and tried to communicate, in the most effective way possible, my personal interaction with life.
The first step to being a good writer is being a good communicator of thought, which means that being a good writer means being a good thinker, and good thinkers are people that are interested in the world. Often, the problem behind writer’s block is not that something is inherently uninteresting, but that the writer is uninterested.
With this shift in mentality, my process of writing has changed drastically. I see writing now as encompassing everything from pursuing more engaging conversations with others to editing a chunk of stream-of-consciousness text to make it as clear as possible. And when I try to come up with topics to write about, I sit and easily type like I would in a journal. It’s an interesting exercise, one that simultaneously teaches me to reflect, to be honest with myself, and to stop trying to add something to who I am. And this honesty is what moves.
I think one’s writing style should naturally arise out of cutting back to try to reveal the unique individual that a writer is, not out of a desire to embellish or decorate. I had the fundamental misconception that good writing is “flowery” because I thought writing was about choosing the “right” flowers and planting them in the “right” places, when, in reality, the flowers are only a byproduct of seeds and fertile soil.
I’m not claiming to have found the one secret to good writing, nor do I consider my writing “good.” I don’t know if I ever will, or if that’s even the point. Bur for now, I want to forget the flowers, forget the grades, and just try learning how to think and communicate. Maybe one day in the process, I’ll look down and see that I’ve broken through the B+ ceiling I never thought I could penetrate. And my dears, I won’t give a damn.
Grace Koh is a second-year in the College majoring in political science.