Monday, December 5, 2011

Where/how did you learn to write?

Today’s question doesn’t have one answer for me. I can’t pinpoint a specific Eureka! moment when a switch was flipped in my brain and I suddenly became aware that because of this, that, or the other thing, I had learned to write. For one, there’s a huge difference between learning to write and learning to write well.

I hope that when it comes to learning to write well, I will continue to learn, improving my craft with each manuscript. No matter what we do for a living, we should always be striving to do better. Otherwise, we become complacent, and we stagnate.

I can say that I owe my knowledge of the mechanics of writing to a very special junior high school teacher. I may have mentioned her previously when the question of the week involved our grammar pet peeves. Peggy Riley Hughes was my English teacher for both seventh and eighth grades. She had a reputation that made students quiver in their shoes.

Pity the poor kid who didn’t know an answer when called upon in class or worse, forgot his homework. Peggy made you pay for your transgressions. She also ran through dozens of yardsticks each year because she’d emphasize her points by smacking the blackboard or a student’s desk with them. Her blackboards were covered in dings and gouges from those yardsticks, and rumor has it, she actually cracked a blackboard once. However, as far as I know and as much as she may have wanted to, she never cracked any skulls. She took her displeasure with us out on inanimate objects.

These days, Peggy’s teaching methods would probably land her in front of the school board. Or worse. However, anger issues aside, she forced us to learn. Those grammar rules are forever seared into my brain, and in part, have helped me accomplish wonderful things in my writing life.

Lois Winston writes the critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries series. The first book, Assault With A Deadly Glue Gun, was a January 2011 release and received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Booklist. Death by Killer Mop Doll will be a January 2012 release. Visit Lois at and Anastasia at the Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers blog,


Pat Dale said...

Interesting question, Lois. I also had good teachers who drilled grammar and spelling into my brain at an early age. And one English teacher in my senior year much like your Peggy.
After four years of Air Force service I went to Nebraska Wesleyan University to become a music teacher. There, I had several great English professors who did their best to turn me into a fiction author, saying I seemed to have the instincts of a good writer. Music was my calling, though, so I waited for decades to write the 'great American novel'. LOL
Knowing what words to put together seems to be a natural thing for me, but not the mechanics of writing. I'm, like you, still learning that and probably will to my deathbed. I hope so, anyway.

Patricia said...

Lois, I had a drill sergeant for an English teacher - Sister Adrienne Marie and MAN, did she make us learn English the correct way. I hated her and she seemed to hate us as well, I have to say; but what I know now of grammar and words and Latin derivatives, I have to lay at her door for teaching me and am thankful for that.

Lois Winston said...

Thanks, Pat and Patricia. Isn't it interesting that often the teachers we learned the most from are the ones we dreaded the most?

jeff7salter said...

Lois, I had been "writing" (i.e., helping my brother compose skits & such) since I was knee-high to a toad frog. My earliest utterances which were committed to paper were from about 3rd grade (though it was one of my parents who actually wrote them down after hearing me recite them).
Grammar and spelling always came easy to me and I actually enjoyed both! Yeah, I know ...
But, like you, Lois, I had a Jr. H.S. Eng. teacher who inspired (& encouraged) me. So, in 8th grade, I knew that writing had to be a major part of my life. By 10th gr. another English teacher was reading & critiquing my poems (& other writing) and offering encouragement.

lil Gluckstern said...

Interesting post. I had plenty of good warm teachers in my school years who liked my writings, and when I went to college, I was told that I did good test work, and wrote terrible papers. After much thought, and discussion, I figured out that when I was spontaneous, I didn't overwrite, (which I'm probably doing now). Then I got married and older, and subscribed to Newsweek and the New York Times. There I learned how to write. I have done primarily non fiction, collate legal statements for my patients, and legal reports for family court systems. Now when I write, people like what I have to say, and I have been published in several newspapers-print editions. I have a fiction in me, but I haven't gotten it out yet. but I always said Newsweek taught me how to write.

Joshua Corin said...

Lois, both Michelle Gagnon and I had a teacher a lot like yours - and to this day, despite this teacher's conservative disciplinarian ethos, I am pretty sure he's the reason I can still quote Lewis Carroll and James Madison and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and I can sniff out a grammatically incorrect sentence like a bloodhound.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting question, I agree.

My father was my biggest writing influence. He (and my paternal grandparents) insisted that frequent letters be written and I had to make some contribution even before I could actually write my thoughts down. I am also actually glad the early elementary school teachers required essays.


jenny milchman said...

How great to have a teacher who was such an influence, Lois. I hope that teachers like Peggy, who care and raise expectations (perhaps minus the yardstick), continue to influence children and writers.

Lois Winston said...

Jeff, lil, Josh, anonymous, and Jenny--
Thank you all for your comments.

E. F. Watkins said...

Like some of the other folks who have posted here, I was taught by nuns -- all the way down the line! I came out of school with a solid grounding in spelling, punctuation and sentence structure. And since I went on to work for a daily newspaper, my editors would call me on any mistakes I made on the job. Journalism also taught me to research my background and not take things at face value, so even though I write fiction I try to make sure the factual elements of the story are correct. But although I was an English major and studied literature, I learned how to structure a "commercial" story from reading lots and lots of genre novels. Only after I was an adult, trying to write publishable books, did I start studying on my own how to plot and develop characters. It was trial-and-error, as witnessed by the fact that it took me a long while to get published!

Lois Winston said...

E.F., I suspect Peggy was taught by nuns. So you could say that I was taught by a nun, once removed.

Anonymous said...

I never had a useful English teacher until college. When I was a little girl, though, my mother wrote out sheets of story words for me. I could read but I didn't know how to spell. With the help of the story sheets (think of a dictionary with a hundred words or so in it, but organized by word type rather than alphabetically), I was able to write out my own stories. I think I would have been five years old at the time.

Morgan St. James said...

I became a writer by accident and learned most of what I know by the "seat of my pants."

I was an interior designer and my partner and I were approached by a slick design magazine to do an article. We said yes, the photographers came and the night before the deadline we had nothing to submit. The problem was simple. We weren't writers. Panic set in, but after a few glasses of wine my partner Carol and I produced the first piece I ever had published...and I went on to write many more magazine articles covering a wide range of topics.

Years later when I tried my hand at fiction and couldn't get published, I knuckled down, attended conferences, workshops, classes and critique groups. I learned my craft to the point where I now have 5 published novels and give workshops and talks about writing.

Misty MacRae said...

My grandmother left me the legacy of reading, writing, music and flowers: I'm an avid reader reading an average of at least one book a week.SOme are historial romance, some are mystery but many of them deal with real history - anything prior to the 1700's unless it is Scottish History.

My grandmother also taught me that you are only limited by your imagination -- well, in that case, I don't have a whole lot of limits, because I have a great imagination - but I do beleive that the imagination is also connected to the artist in me, not just the writer.