An Abstract Concept
An Abstract Concept The act of having to put a grade on a piece of creative writing has always seemed like an abstract concept to me. It took me a while to pinpoint exactly the issue that I had with it because, for everyone else, it just seemed to be a regular part of school; you sit down, you get given a brief just like any other assessment, and then you write the piece, and get your grade. Simple.
However, creative writing in a school situation has always been a struggle, which was surprising as normally, this was a task that I had always enjoyed. At five years old, I had wanted to be a veterinarian, who was also a ballerina by night. The basis behind this, I can remember clearly, was that I would spend all day petting kittens and puppies, and then I would fly off in a huge pink tutu and have roses thrown at me as I danced like a princess on stage all night. However, this dream, as many five-year-old dreams go, was quickly squashed for a few reasons- the main one being that I discovered to my horror that to be a vet you had to cut into animals. The dream of ballet similarly died soon after I started for the first time and realized that I hated the dance with a burning passion.
For five-year-old me, dreams came and went in the blink of an eye. There was the idea of being an astronaut, a superhero, a singer- each one cheerfully forgotten and replaced in the innocent bliss of being young and carefree. But then I turned six years old, and my life was changed suddenly by the animated television show Deltora’s Quest. Deltora’s Quest was a children’s cartoon based off a series of books by Emily Rodda, about a trio of heroes on a quest in a fantasy land for magical gems that they needed to save their world from an evil power. I was captured by the show, and when my sister told me that there was a book series that it was based off- I was overjoyed.
I tore through all seven books in about a month, and by the end, one thing was clear- I was going to be an author, just like Emily. So, I got started right away. I wrote my first ever novel, which to my memory had entailed me copying out the first book of Deltora’s Quest word for word. Except, I replaced the main characters with female protagonists who were collecting magical diamonds for a necklace, instead of gems for a belt. I diligently read out the entire novel to my parents every night for a week, while they patiently listened and nodded along whilst trying to vacuum, write reports for work or mow the lawn, probably wondering how soon this new phase, like the many before it, was going to pass. But unluckily for them, the phase never did go away.
The passion for storytelling gripped me tight and didn’t let go. I would set up audiences of teddy bears when my family was unavailable and read out the first chapters of different books of my own creation- mysteries, romances, adventures- my favourite genres would change with whatever I was reading at the time. It goes without saying that for about two or three years, the hastily scrawled stories in spiral notebooks that littered my room were dominated by ideas of magical schools and characters that had a stark resemblance to Harry Potter. However, as I got older, my ideas gradually became more and more personal and original. There was a short story about a blind painter, a woman who accidentally shot her dog, and a refugee girl whose father died as they tried to cross an ocean.
I felt filled with the urge to write, to create my own words and ideas like the authors that I so looked up to. As I worked my way up the school levels, my passion became more and more evident, as I began to outwrite what my teachers had thought possible. Each one-hour session on Friday afternoons that was dedicated to the craft would be filled with the scribbled sounds of me sitting in the corner; filling out page after page of blue pen ramblings that seemed to be fuelled by a surge of never-ending passion. I can remember these days very clearly. I can remember what it felt like to be six years old, sitting cross-legged on the floor of my room surrounded by dog-eared books of daring adventures. I had only wanted to replicate the feelings that they had instilled in me in my own words.
I can recall the surge of pride when I won a poetry competition in year six, and the sense of achievement when I pinned the winning article to the wall. And I can still feel the rush I got when we were told that the next thing we had to write could be anything that we wanted. Happy memories- tainted only with the worrying question: what happened? Where did the joy go? Where did the urge to write, the sense of achievement in completing a piece, disappear to? I can actually recall the day that it started to slip away- it just took me a while to connect the dots as to why this had such an impact. Moving to a big high school was daunting, and thirteen-year-old me was filled with anxiety at the prospect of starting a new phase of my life practically alone. Year nine was one of the hardest years I’ve faced for a number of reasons, but there was one moment that stands out to me, and probably will for a long time. It was when we had to write about a family memory for English class- and I was thrilled! Finally, we were going to do some creative writing.
I poured everything I could into that piece, I barely remember the actual memory that I chose to write about, but I remember the feeling of that rush again- of being able to write something however I liked. Being able to create. I also remember the feeling of crushing disappointment when I got the piece back with the word ‘achieved’ written in red at the top of the page followed by the words- “confusing and long” written under it. For those who may become confused, where I am from, New Zealand, our grading system states that achieved is the lowest grade you can get, (aside from failing) and an excellence was the highest. Later, I sat at home on my bedroom floor thinking “I’ll do better next time” while systematically tearing up the first piece of creative writing I’d been allowed to do all year in half- then quarters- then eighths- over and over until I had stopped crying. Now I know that it is at this point that I sound a little bit like a cop-out or a cry baby.
Poor girl couldn’t handle not getting a good grade… maybe I just wasn’t as amazing as I thought? Don’t worry- these are all thoughts that went through my mind, followed by others like “if I can just improve then I won’t have to feel so bad” or “maybe this just wasn’t a good idea” or even “she liked her piece, so maybe I could just write like her.” Why was this such a big deal to me? It took me a long time to figure that out. No one else seemed to care about what grades they got. So, I started to stop making such a big deal about writing. I stopped talking about it, I stopped writing down ideas when they came.
Everything that I wrote suddenly felt scrutinised and ‘too complicated.’ When I did try to write things, it felt like I had a voice in the back of my head telling me that what I was doing wasn’t good enough. That had never happened before. And perhaps I should have been happier getting ‘constructive feedback.’ But allow me to explain.
I never started writing with the intention of being graded. When I was six years old, writing was something exciting, something new. It was a way to create new characters and worlds that were entirely my own. It was a way to escape. As I got older, it became a way to express myself where other areas I would fail.
Some people drew their feelings, while I dealt with them by writing them down through characters and plots. And as my love for the craft grew, so did its meaning to me. It had felt that whenever I was writing, I wasn’t just creating stories, I was pouring myself into every page. I was typing down my consciousness in every sentence. Every piece felt like I was exposing a part of myself to the world.
To repeat- I did not start writing for grades. That was never the intention. I started writing so that I had an outlet where I could finally be myself. Does it seem fair to try and put criteria to an outlet of someone’s soul? As my years in high school dragged on, I felt myself start to give up parts of me. In year ten I wrote an original short story for the first time in two years, and I worked on it for a couple of weeks.
I received my fifth ‘achieved’ grade in a row. And so, I changed tracts. I started to read the teachers. I figured out what they were wanting in a piece of writing and I wrote things to fit that. I was no longer writing for myself, I was writing to get an excellence. I was writing so that I could stop feeling a crushing blow every time I got a piece of paper back.
And it worked for a while. I got excellences. I wrote cheesy descriptive pieces about how my mother’s eyes twinkled like the stars. And every time I got back the little E at the top of the page, I told myself that I was happy with it. But this was far from the truth. Because as I surrendered myself to what the curriculum taught me creative writing should be, the less I wanted to write it.
I stopped working on an idea for a book I had come up with. Spiral notebooks sat empty on shelves. Every time I came up with an idea I would start to alter it to fit what I thought I had to write. Everything was too long, everything was too abstract. I had to think inside the box. So, I gave up a part of myself for a while.
I shut it down. I chased excellence grades and ignored what I needed to do to be happier with myself. The outlet I had was gone. I won’t even start to go into what disastrous consequences this had on a lot of aspects of my life, without even realising it. I won’t bore you with how this might have inadvertently affected how much pressure I began to put on myself in other areas. The truth was, no matter how much I smiled at teachers and excitedly waggled papers when I got that excellence at the top of the page, I was never actually happy with the results.
I always felt like I was betraying something, I just didn’t know what. The road to figuring this out took until year eleven when we reached a creative writing standard. It was a pretty basic format- describe someone who is close to you. And I knew what they wanted. They wanted me to talk about how their hair glowed in the sun, or how their eyes were the colour of the ocean.
I knew what they wanted me to write, but this time, it felt like I had a voice in the back of my head that was steadily getting louder and louder- this isn’t who you are. So, I sat down and for the first time in maybe years, I wrote what I actually felt. I described someone who might potentially be the platonic love of my life, but this time, I described her the way I saw her. I talked about how they played with their necklace when they were nervous, I described how they clapped their hands together when they finally figured out the word they were stuck on. How we had screamed out song lyrics when we went hiking up mountains in the middle of nowhere so that we wouldn’t get bored. I barely skimmed over her physical appearance.
For me, describing a person was about describing how they saw the world, and how they made me see the world. Handing it in was terrifying, because after years of feeling inadequate about myself, and my writing, I was scared to feel that rejection again. It felt like I was going to get validation that I was worth nothing more than an achieved. I was almost expecting it- except for that little stubborn voice who had been held back, who was screaming against an overwhelming number of negative thoughts: “what you wrote was good!” Such a simple sentence, and yet not one I could quite believe. Until I got my paper back, this time with a smile and the words “this was amazing- do you do creative writing outside of school too?” It was a real “Look at me! I did well!” moment.
I sound like I’m boasting. And you know what? I am. Because I’m so proud of that piece, and I was so happy at that moment. To get a such a nonchalant comment, on something that I had worked so hard on, meant everything to me. I got an excellence grade on that piece of writing but honestly, I didn’t even care- because it wasn’t ‘too long,’ or ‘too complicated’ it wasn’t the wrong thing to write. The comments were all positive in a way that said- “this sentence is good! But do you want to change this word?” Or “I can really see her, as you see her.
” My piece wasn’t marked to what a teacher would have written, or how a teacher preferred it- my piece was marked with the recognition that everyone writes differently. Everyone sees the world differently, sees people differently. The people in the class who got an excellence on that topic was across a huge range of writing styles because it was marked more on the content of what was put down- on the passion that was there, and not on the amount of writing features that were shown. In previous years, all the excellence pieces were almost carbon copies of one another, based on what the teacher had liked; and I had been one of the carbon copies. Slowly, over that year, I began to grow more confident in what I was writing.
I started to think about my book idea again. I improved which each piece of feedback because none of it was trying to change my style, it was to make it better. There was a moment I remember when I couldn’t stop smiling for an entire spell- I felt like I was six years old again getting a standing ovation from my teddy bears. Creative writing should not be something that is moderated. It shouldn’t be something that is marked on criteria. I felt like I was writing only to impress a person, and I felt like I was betraying myself with every sentence.
Writing was always something I did for me! It was how I expressed myself, how I told all my darkest secrets, all my fears. And it was ruined for me, and that almost destroyed me. When I write, I am not giving you some story that I just thought up for fun. I am giving you a piece of me, I am writing down a stream of my consciousness and presenting my soul on a silver platter. And for three years I got told that I wasn’t worth any more than an achieved grade, without being told why only told that to get an excellence I had to conform to something that I wasn’t.
Writing outside of school was almost taken away from me because every time I wrote a sentence I would wonder if it was worth an excellence. I wondered if someone who was basically a stranger to me would look at it and give an achieved. I couldn’t bear to face being torn down again and again and again. I was lucky to get such positive feedback in year eleven, and to get support from many teachers since then- and I know that not every student and not every teacher has a similar experience to me, but I think that a point still stands- to grade creative writing and to force it to be contained in criteria and to be totally controlled by the opinion of someone else seems like a betrayal of what it means to be a writer. So why has the act of grading a piece of creative writing always seemed to be such an abstract concept to me? Because I figured out that the freedom to express oneself shouldn’t be limited by the obscure guidelines of what a group of strangers had sat down and decided that it had to be.
I might be alone in this, this might be a completely unique set of circumstances, but this is how I see it. This is how I saw the writing portfolio standard, and how I still see it whenever it comes up in school, and I am filled with a sense of dread. But now I’m trying to push past and believe that whatever piece of writing I produce is more than what grade I get. If I think it’s good, then I have to believe it’s good, no matter how difficult it might be. I am more than a grade, or what the standard thinks I should be. And every time my work is marked on the content and not what they think it should read, I am glad- but I wish that it never had to be like that in the first place.
It was never about the grades, it was about letting loose, being myself. I wish that one day I can feel as carefree as I did when I was six years old watching Deltora’s Quest again, even if it takes a while. But I think that in the end, I have to accept that that part of me, the six-year-old with the big dreams, was someone totally different to who I am now. But that’s okay. Because perhaps the exciting part about growing up is figuring who you are, and the way I want to do that is through my writing, and I’m excited to see who I might become.