Why I flunked WR 121

At the state university I attended, every freshman was required to take Writing 121, or WR 121. It was a basement-level class that focused on the fundamentals of expository essay writing: thesis, argument and conclusion. Very basic. And it should have been very easy, especially for a girl who earned straight A’s in her advanced and honors English classes all through high school, wrote for her school newspaper, and was majoring in journalism.

But I flunked it the first time I took it. (I eventually did pass it, because I had to in order to graduate.)

Not that my writing was bad, mind you. Huh, as if. No, I flunked that dull little class because I couldn’t decide from week to week what the heck to write about from among the tediously predictable topics of the day: gun control, abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, whatever. My opinions on complex subjects like those tend also to be complex and nuanced and shifty depending on what information I have about them. I am not likely to develop an opinion about, say, abortion or capital punishment based on a pamphlet or a poster or a 30-second TV spot and then defend that opinion ever after regardless of the facts. I like to sort things out slowly, and examine them from all sides before making up my mind. Even then, thanks to my liberal-arts education at an exceedingly liberal university, I am probably going to change my mind if I am presented with new and different information because I’m flexible like that.

Those 5-page papers I was supposed to write every week on some hugely controversial topic of my choice seemed like both too much and too little work. I couldn’t seem to wrap my head around any big topic long enough or deeply enough to know what I really thought about it, let alone what I had to say about it. Writer’s block per se has never been my problem; if I know what I think, I have no trouble expressing it. The hard part is knowing what I think because thinking takes time, and when life speeds up and time gets tight, thinking is pretty much the first discretionary activity to be cut.

It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.
~ Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography

I should have dropped WR 121 early in the semester when I realized I couldn’t motivate myself to write the essays, but I waited too long and ended up with an F on my transcript (the only one I received in four years) in the one class that should have been my easiest A of all.

This inability to gain writing traction without a clearly thought-out topic at hand haunted me all through college and into my early career as a newspaper reporter. When news was happening hot and heavy all over town, I was in my element and right on top of every breaking story. But when the news slowed down and story ideas were not queueing themselves up on my desk, I floundered. Good reporters fill their copy quota every single day whether news is happening or not. In that respect, I was not a very good reporter. I remember one day lamenting the slowness of the news cycle to a senior editor, who wisely observed, “There is always something happening to write about today. And if nothing whatsoever is happening today, you can write about that because it would be the first time.” I’ve never forgotten that because I know he was right, but there were still too many days when the fire trucks didn’t run and the criminals didn’t get arrested and cars didn’t collide when I would sit and stare helplessly at my keyboard, wondering what in the world to say.

When I started this blog, that editor’s words rang in my head. I wondered, could I find something to fill the page every day? Was I setting the bar too high for myself to be a daily poster? Some days, it sure feels like it. That’s when I post a picture or a comic and call it good. But that’s just me dodging away from the topics that are actually on my mind that feel too personal or too scary to discuss on the internet, or maybe are too complex for me to sort out what I really think about them between 9:30 p.m. and midnight when I finally get around to writing. Or, maybe that’s just me being too tired to think at all.

One of the reasons I started blogging was to challenge myself, and I am certainly coming up hard against that challenge more frequently as I exhaust my list of easy blog topics. But I’m not going to flunk this. I’ll be here with something every day.

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