How cherubs taught me to write again

Instructor John Kupetz is known for his green pen edits. Photos by Marc Chappelle.

My freshman-year English teacher described my writing as very German.

He couldn’t tell me exactly what that meant, so I decided to take it as a compliment. From then on, confidence in my apparently European writing style became an important part of my identity. I didn’t find writing difficult. I was proud of the work I produced and I always wanted to share it. Then I came to Medill.

The first Sunday night, after a group of cherubs shared personal essays they wrote at our weekly writing club, I left Fisk Hall in a daze. Everyone was congratulating the cherubs who had read their amazing work and the rollercoaster of emotions we’d experienced was just starting to sink in. All I could think about was how well-written the pieces were. These other cherubs wrote with a journalistic style that made every word count, and they all conveyed their messages with ease.

To say I was intimidated would be an understatement. I didn’t feel like my stories flowed the same way or held the same power. Short deadlines and hard assignments left me with articles I never wanted anyone else to read. Writing, which had always come naturally for me, suddenly became an incredibly daunting task.

I feared writing an imperfect article. The words that once flowed so easily were stopped by constant self-editing. I’d read and reread what I’d already written until I knew the perfect way to proceed. Yet, looking back at the finished story, I was often disappointed.

Our instructors always said there’s no such thing as a good first draft. The papers I got back from my instructor John Kupetz, which still smelled of the green ink from his ballpoint pen, proved them correct.

But then we started hearing from speakers who had had similar experiences. Hope Edelman, the author of "Motherless Daughters," told us that book chapters are usually written and revised 10 to 12 times. Guest instructor Bret Begun of Bloomberg Businessweek showed us the unorganized first draft of an article written by a freelance writer and its journey to becoming a published article. Guest instructor Lindsey Kratochwill, an audio journalist and freelance writer, played for us the famous Ira Glass quotation on creativity.

“We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have,” Glass said. “We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.”

Hearing these stories from people working in the field today changed my whole outlook on writing. It was no longer a talent or just something to be good at. It’s work, it’s frustrating and, especially now, it’s not always going to be good. But I’ve come to realize that’s OK.

My writing has improved more in these five weeks than it has in three years of high school because of the volume of work we produced. Not the volume of good work. Just work. I wasn’t always confident in what I was doing. I didn’t always know what I was doing. But this program taught me to criticize myself in a productive way and develop an objectivity towards my own work. I arrived confident in my ability to write and am now leaving confident in my ability to improve.

I’ll never know what that English teacher meant when he called my writing German. But, thanks to cherubs, it’s safe to say I don’t write like that anymore.