Back in the monkey days, when Fs were real and our local university was still respected as a school, I took what may have been called English 101, a writing class with a widely dreaded three hour written composition for a final. Since I had long been praised for my writing, I was looking forward to it.
A Mr. Parks walked in with his greasy blond hair, crooked horn rimmed glasses, sandals and miss-matched socks, and announced that they couldn’t find a PhD., so he was teaching for the quarter.
A wave of groans passed through the class.
“Too bad,” he said. “See this book? Turn to page thirty-six.” We read a short story to ourselves and then discussed it as he paced about, white froth gathering at the corners of his mouth.
The next day we had an essay to write before we left.
On the following day, he handed out a fistful of F papers and two Ds. There were no higher grades. I had one of the D papers. The kids from ‘way up in Chicago howled with indignation. Their daddies would see that he was fired.
“I got a D,” I said.
“But I don’t ever get grades like that…”
“Time you did,” he said.
“But most of my paper’s marked out with red ink…”
“That’s because it stinks,” he said. “Look. If you want to fix it, come to my office before the day’s over.”
I showed up and stood in line with the rest of the class.
When I stepped into his office, he had his feet on his desk, watching me have a seat.
“So what’s wrong with it?” I said as I read aloud a few lines.
“I already told you. It stinks.”
“But doesn’t this sound…?”
“Do you think anyone gives a shit about your choice of words or your specially chosen phrases?” he said, tossing the paper back at me. “Look. The first paragraph. What are you trying to say?”
I started to read the first line.
“No! Just look at me and tell me about what’s in the first paragraph.”
“Well…” I said, “Nancy was in a state of bliss because she was naive?”
“Good!” he said. “That’s exactly what you should have written. “Now I’ve got Miss What’s Her Face standing in the doorway all anxious, with a slew of people behind her.”
I ended up with an A for the quarter, and came away knowing that it’s not the words you like which makes your writing good, but the words you have no problem throwing away.