Invisible Lines

Mark Williams

I dropped composition 102 two—maybe three—times in college. I did finally complete it in my last semester. It was “take comp or don’t graduate”: I took comp. But even then, it turned out to be the worst grade of my college career, by about an entire grade.

The first time I took the class, at community college, I stayed in almost the entire semester, but at some point halfway through I quit turning in the assignments. The turning point was a long “article summary” that the teacher gave me a D on, some article by a scientist named John Polkinghorne. (It bothered me enough that I’ve remembered, apparently.) I thought I understood the article, I thought I’d written a summary, and the teacher simply said (over and over) that I “had not summarized the article.” I couldn’t get any farther than that with him. So when he began giving small assignment after small assignment and telling us that they would be “helpful,” I no longer trusted him—I’d already decided that he was not helpful, so why would his assignments be helpful? I quit turning things in, then dropped the class on the last possible date.

The next time I took composition, I walked out halfway through the first class. I had some important reasons: first, he called the writing process “percolating,” a really obnoxious metaphor for people like me who hated coffee. I still smell that bitter coffee smell when I picture his classroom. Second, he was using his percolating metaphor to justify a mountain of assignments that I thought were way overboard for a simple gen. ed. requirement. I don’t like coffee and I don’t like being overworked in a gen. ed., so I walked out before he’d finished the syllabus. I picked up stellar astronomy instead.

I arrived at the last semester of college, finally forced to take ENG 102. I felt dragged along, alternately insulted and embarrassed by what I was learning, until the final paper when we were required to have a tutoring session at the writing center. I remember my writing center tutor was a girl I’d gone to junior high with named Courtney, and how much it embarrassed me to be “asking” for help on an English 102 paper from someone I wanted to view as an equal. But I didn’t see much choice, and Courtney was quiet, and thoughtful, and patient, and helpful—and forty-five minutes later I was walking out of the library into the cold Chicago air with a new blue pencil and the uncomfortable realization that I could’ve been a lot better student, and a lot better writer, than I would now be as a college graduate. I felt as if an opportunity had been there, and I was too late to make good on it.

That was nine years ago this month. I still feel the almost infuriating helplessness I felt in those moments—moments when I knew there was something I could not do but needed to do, something just on the other side of a paper-thin curtain. The causes of those impotent moments can be different—in my stories I can see circumstances, a teacher’s failure, my laziness and my pride all getting in the way; for other people it can be language barriers, or educational differences, or a language disorder. But in all those cases writing doesn’t work like other skills. It’s not like basketball, where we always can see that we’re missing our shots or dribbling the ball off our foot or just getting beaten by bigger, faster, stronger players. Oftentimes, success and failure in writing operate along invisible lines for those of us who are failing. As a writing tutor and teacher—a “success”—I have to say that the lines haven’t really gotten more visible. They’re more strongly felt, I want to say—but then again, I felt my failures as a writer so deeply back then, too. I think it comes down to this, for all of us: we may not be able to recognize what’s going on in our writing, but we do acquire a “feel” as writers. Good feelings, but bad feelings too, feelings that make writing impossible, undesirable, beyond us. If I’m right, then we need to work to pay attention to the forceful, invisible lines writing continually bumps us up against. And trust that everyone else feels them too.

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