In my 11th grade AP English class, we used to begin every day with an exercise in response writing. Mrs. Smith would write a word, phrase, or provocative quote on the black board and set an egg timer for three minutes. In those three minutes we had to write a “journal entry” in a notebook solely dedicated to those exercises. The deal was, we could write about anything, and she would never read our journals. She would just flip through the pages a few times throughout the semester and check them off to make sure we’d actually been writing while the timer was running.
The point of this exercise was to build up confidence in our ability to churn out content. It was a skill that was highly necessary on the standardized tests we were all constantly preparing for, but I had a hunch that Mrs. Smith had other reasons for her assignment as well. After all, this was the teacher who one day, after we had all gotten situated and were waiting quietly for class to begin, blared Barbara Streisand’s “People” on the CD player, to our horror, to break us of the habit of using the word repetitively as a subject (people think this, people do that, etc..). She once broke the sacred “teachers don’t swear” rule to illustrate her opinion of how the word “fuck” was the epitome of classlessness and that there was always a better word choice. She tended to go to extremes to drill important lessons into our heads.
I was pretty good about writing Journal entries. I was one of the weird kids who liked standardized tests and took extreme pride in my scores. But some days I just didn’t have it in me to write prompted essays, so I would fake it. Instead of writing anything related to the prompt, I would write about whatever guy I had a crush on at the time, or about some political concept that I probably didn’t really understand but that I had very strong opinions on. Other times I would write utter and complete gibberish — literally strings of whatever words popped into my head or were inspired by visual cues from around the room — just so that I would have a page filled with words and could receive a “check” at the end of the year. Assuming I took about 95% of it seriously though, that’s over 250 formatted short essays that I was able to churn out that year.
And now, seven years later I live in New York City with the access and ability (and open invitations) to contribute to several publications that are on my top pedestal of literary brilliance, and I find myself more in the 5% mindset than the 95%. I think it’s a combination of being busy with other necessary, though less glamorous, forms of content production (like writing emails, transcriptions, and comments) and of fear. Back when I wrote articles for my college daily newspaper, my audience consisted of my interview subjects, who often praised my work for its scientific accuracy and style (until I moved into the political realm of journalism, where my interview subjects tried to bring me down so I would stop meddling), but mostly it was just a bunch of faceless readers. Now, through the Internet and all my work with online community management, I have a much larger and much more personal reader base, who I am perhaps overly concerned with impressing. They think so much of me, and I’m worried I will un-impress them if I write something stupid.
But the stupid thing is that I’m not writing. Or not nearly as much as I should be, on the channels I could be, anyways. As much as I may have been annoyed by Mrs. Smith’s militancy in making us write those Journal entries every single day of class, or by my editors at the Michigan Daily who constantly rode my ass and wouldn’t take my excuses when I would try to talk my way out of assignments and deadlines, I miss that now. I produced great content under that kind of pressure where, up to my own devices, I may have just put the assignment on the back burner, as I have done with so many amazing writing opportunities lately.
When I decided I wanted to leave engineering and pursue journalism in college, my academic adviser sat me down and said “Arikia, when you talk, people listen. You’ve just got to figure out what you want to say and say it.” And that’s exactly what I need to do again, if for no other reason than so the title of this blog stops being ironic. I just hope that by the time I pull myself back into writing mode, the windows of opportunity are still open.
So if you are a mildly sadistic editor who has an egg timer and are interested to see what kind of writing I can really do when I put my mind to it, please get in touch. And if you are reading this post because you happen to already like my writing, please suggest a topic or craft a prompt on the makeshift black board that is this comment field. In the mean while, I’ll just work on channeling my inner-Mrs. Smith.