Note from Nick: This is a guest post submission from Richard Stephens, who shares a personal and moving story about learning to write amongst massive setbacks. It’s a little different than the how-to stuff we usually post, but it was too good to pass up.
Read it, hear it, and enjoy it. This story (a true one, at that!) is one with a fantastic message. Thanks, Richard!
My first grade classmates and I stood in alphabetical order, facing a room of empty desks. Mr. Burrows, a thin fastidious man with a reputation as a knuckle smacker, faced the first student, Bobby something. His last name began with an “A”.
“Would you please spell, ‘coat’.”
“Very good, you may sit down.”
Mr. Burrows continued down the line of nervous students. Some spelled their word correctly and were allowed to sit down. Those who misspelled theirs waited for a second chance after the first round. I was one of those students that always seemed to be waiting for the second round.
I could read the words perfectly, I just couldn’t spell them.
My struggle with the written word did not begin in Mr. Burrows’ class in Northridge California. No, my battle began 2,000 miles away in Waukesha Wisconsin. Because I was considered a strong reader – ahead of the class for my age – I was picked for a trial program during which I learned to spell words phonetically. I never learned the results of this experiment, as halfway through the school year I moved with my family to California.
“Mr. Stephens, let’s try this again.”
I was the last one standing and this was my fourth word.
“Would you please spell, ‘boat.’”
I love boats, this should be easy. “B-O-T, boat.”
“Try again, remember, it needs to be four letters.” Mr. Burrows held up four fingers. The entire class was staring at me like I was an idiot. I felt like an idiot.
I never spelled boat correctly, or any other four letter word that day. “I don’t know how you’re going to move to second grade if you can’t pass basic spelling,” he told me as I shuffled to my seat.
I didn’t – at least not that year. The teachers and my parents agreed that I should retake first grade. I’d passed kindergarten without incident so I figured I was batting .500 so far. To make matters worse, my handwriting was terrible. Even if I could spell every word correctly, no one looking at my scrawl could possibly read it.
My handwriting difficulties stemmed from the fact that I was born without thumbs. At the age of four I went through two successful surgeries – one for each hand – to create thumbs from my index fingers. I had to learn to hold a crayon all over again.
With these perceived handicaps in mind, I assumed I was never going to be a great speller or writer (or even an okay speller or writer) and avoided all attempts to improve either. Because of my poor attitude, all other aspects of my grammar suffered. I read books and magazines like crazy, but did little to improve my skill as a writer of the English language. Somehow I was able to mask my literary shortcomings until high school.
In my ninth year of school I became interested in architecture. I loved drawing lines on paper (this was before the computer came to school), creating houses out of nothing but my imagination – placing walls, windows, and doors anywhere I chose.
Then my old nemesis returned.
I had to label all my beautiful designs. I could fake the spelling, simply copying the words from the textbook or from other student’s drawings, but that didn’t help my handwriting. As hard as I tried, my letters never looked like any other student’s. I knew by my senior year that I wasn’t going to make a living as an architect.
After graduation I went to work for my father at his large collision repair shop. It was there that my nemesis reared its ugly head once again. One of my primary responsibilities was writing estimates on damaged cars when they drove in. That’s written estimates, with correct spelling and legible handwriting. With the customer waiting and sometimes watching, I didn’t have the option of taking my time. One component of the job that helped was that most of the words and terms I had to write were used universally on all cars.
I quickly memorized all the key words, and my handwriting improved marginally over the next few years.
Eventually, the computer and the new estimating software that came with it saved me. I felt like a new man; now my estimates looked as good as everyone else’s.
Throughout my business career, I avoided writing as much as possible. Whenever I had to write anything out by hand, I tended to write it quickly – I wanted to get the task over as soon as possible, praying no one would look over my shoulder and discover my secret.
The results were horrendous. My writing was so bad that even I couldn’t read it most of the time.
Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to hide my inabilities from the good writers and spellers of the world. On more than one occasion I’d heard the comment, “You’re so smart in everything else, I’m surprised at your spelling.” My knee-jerk response was generally, “Oh, sorry, I was in a hurry and didn’t check it before I gave it to you.”
A few months before turning fifty, I was again confronted by my old foes. Through unfortunate circumstances and bad decisions on my part, I ended up in prison, where I accepted a job in the school department, assisting teachers in administration and teaching a small business course. This still left me a lot of free time. I was encouraged (read: badgered) by three of my fellow inmates to join their Creative Writing Group. This was a once a week, one-and-a-half hour class, taught by a volunteer named Susan. “Come on, it will be fun. No one will laugh at you. We promise.” This was my chance to face my grammar fears head on.
I wasn’t convinced it would be fun, and I was sure everyone would laugh at me – or at least think I was stupid – but I agreed to sit in on a class or two. When I began, Susan had just started a month-long segment on poetry. What I knew about poetry wouldn’t fill a thimble, but what I learned is that writing poetry is pretty cool.
Susan put no restriction on style or how long we had to work on our poems. She didn’t use a big red pen to slash my numerous spelling and grammar infractions. Susan simply encouraged me to write. She said, “keep writing and the rest will come.” I was by no means a great poet – or even a good poet – but for the first time in my life, I enjoyed writing.
The following month, when Susan began teaching fiction, I was still sitting in. Now, I thought, she’s getting into my world. Soon after our first fiction class, I was off and running with my first assignment: Write a short fictional story using an experience from your past as the story line.
I chose a story about a sailboat race. Looking back at that piece now, I’m amazed Susan and the others in the group didn’t laugh me out of the room when I read the first draft. Although the storyline was okay, and my spelling had been corrected by the built-in spell checker (the best invention since sliced bread), my grammar was terrible. Still, nobody laughed at me and I received some positive feedback. I spent three weeks working on that 2,000-word story. When I was finished, The Race was actually readable and I was having a blast. I couldn’t wait to learn more. Incidentally, The Race became the basis of my first novel, Prate Tales, due out this month.
The desire to write soon became a fire inside of me.
I needed to write every day – so I did.
I soon realized that if I intended to take my writing seriously (which I did), my understanding of the English language – and how it’s used in the written word – needed some major help. I devoured every grammar and writing book I could find in the well-stocked prison library. If I read about a book not available in-house, Mom would track it down on Amazon and send it to me. I continued to write every day and set goals for myself; fifteen hundred words a day. Sometimes I wrote seventeen or eighteen hundred words, sometimes I barely forced out two or three hundred.
But I wrote everyday.
Susan was right. I kept on writing and the rest did come. I learned proper sentence structure, as well as the many nuances of writing, like the difference between passive voice and active voice. Best of all, I learned to spell.
Oh, I still make mistakes and it’s taken me forever to get the difference between there, they’re, and their. I’ve been writing daily for over two years now, and I still have days when I feel like that idiot standing in front of Mr. Burrow’s classroom – but I keep on writing.
“Mr. Stephens, can you spell boat?”
“Thank you. You may sit down.