Saturday, August 31, 2013

My Aha Moment in Writing - Michael Collings - Biggest Aha Moments in Writing

My “ah-ha” moment actually came a long time before I seriously considered writing—either fiction or non-fiction—as a profession. I was a teacher, and any writing I did, I had long before decided, would be peripheral to my teaching. I had just received my doctorate in English Renaissance literature and, while waiting for a full-time position, was teaching one-class a semester each at three local (and not so local) community colleges, usually composition with an occasional foray into creative writing or survey of English lit.
On this occasion, I was teaching beginning composition at San Bernardino Community College. It was an unusual class. Of the thirty students, twenty-nine were thirty-five- to fifty-year-old master sergeants from a nearby military base, all men, all older than I was, all up for review or promotion, all needing this particular college credit to ensure success in their next step in their career. And one woman, a freshman at SBCC, eighteen, and if not actually frightened by the men at least tremulous and shy in her responses during the first session. She dropped before the next session.

So there I was, a brand-new Doc, ink on my diploma still wet, facing twenty-nine men who each had more life-experience than I, who wanted—no, demanded—every scrap of information I had to give them, and, even more, who wanted my lectures on English grammar and composition to make sense.

We were discussing semi-colons, always a trouble spot. With any normal class, I would have simply spouted the rule and run rather rough-shod over any questions or objections. Not with this class. When I gave them a rule, they asked “Why?” When I responded, they asked “Why?” Courteously but inevitably, they forced me to examine all of my pat answers and assumptions about not only semi-colons but grammar and mechanics in general and restate them in understandable, usable terms.

Intellectually, I knew that the fundamentals of writing were more important that just for providing subject matter for me to teach. My “History and Grammar of the English Language” course had been remarkable for opening my eyes and my imagination to why the language is so complex and how it came to be that way.

That class of master-sergeants, however, made me see that what I had learned was not dead material to be forgotten after the exam but living guidelines to creating meaning, to controlling meaning in written communication. As I grew, matured, and began my own career as a writer, I found myself stopping in the middle of a paragraph and asking how I would explain a particular point to the master-sergeants, then applying it to my prose.

I can’t remember any of their names, but they became one of the key influences in my teaching career. Thanks, guys.

My online review/response site is: 

I also have an older site at: This contains older, frequently longer articles.

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