Fear (a young writer’s journey)

My teachers used to instil a sense of fear into me, when I was learning how to craft essays. I was never to use contractions, I never could write about violence, and trying to write in a fantasy realm was a definite no-go. There were so many rules to writing, so many rules I was so afraid to break. As a result, writing short pieces in school was a pain, for it was so boring — especially when the prompt was “About Myself”. Not that I am a boring person, of course.

If a teacher asked me to write about myself, I thought, should I not be allowed to break any and all of the rules that came with writing in school? But there was always that sense of being afraid of the teacher, for one, and having a real fear that if I broke the rules, I would come away without the skills I needed to ace my examinations.

This sense of fear became so ingrained into my mental processes that I almost thought not to question it. I have always been a voracious reader, and I noticed so many of my favourite authors using “don’t”, and “shouldn’t”, and “wouldn’t”, and worst of all, “ain’t”. Still, when I was in school, I would always dismiss those things as “bad” writing, rules that these authors could break because they were paid professionals.

This changed when I was in secondary 4. I remember reading a novel that featured such intense violence and action that I had a vivid dream about it. It was a novel that took place in a skyscraper, that had the protagonist running up the stairs of this building. I dreamt it, all hundred-and-some storeys of it. I remember waking up not only tired, but exhausted, and in some strange way, exhilarated. If an author — who celebrated violence in his writing — could make me feel this good, and bad, with a single piece of writing, I was going to try to be like him.

The next essay I did in class, I threw caution to the wind and wrote about a massacre. There were hangings, there was shooting, there was a car chase, and even a scene where my narrator jumped from a helicopter onto a moving truck. (Thank you, Hollywood.) It felt like a release, breaking that violence rule. Of course, now that I had broken the rule, I did not expect to get a terribly high grade.

When I got the essay back, I was gratified to see that I had gotten a very high mark. My teacher had written something to the effect of “I’d say try to avoid violence, but you do it very well, so I don’t know”, and I was absolutely delighted with that. Not only had I broken the rules, I had gotten approval for it.

That was the point when I realised that rules about writing were meant to be broken, sometimes, by some people. I had overcome my fear of breaking the rules, and my grades improved for it. No longer did I have to think about creating some boring story about going to the market to buy vegetables with my mother, I could write about disembodied voices (reason: schizophrenia), violence (reason: political unrest), fistfights (reason: violent criminals), and so on.

Overcoming that fear caused me to make some mistakes, of course, but learning how to break the rules wisely was probably the start of my journey as a writer. If I had never overcome my fear of breaking the rules, I would probably have abandoned writing and indulged in some other activity instead, for I would have never started to thoroughly enjoy writing.



Essay scoring tip: deliver ‘truth’

People who grade essays are human beings, and human beings will always have their own biases. Here’s something that works (I know because I tested it out in JC, and I topped my school in GP!) that is almost never taught — if your essay delivers some kind of earth-shattering ‘truth’, the marker feels the urge to ignore your weaker points and just give you a higher grade.

Let us look at the SAT essay marking criteria, for example. (Yes, the SATs may be an American thing, but trust me, the essay marking schemes for the O- and A-levels are quite similar. These essay tests assess very similar abilities. A good writer is going to score well on any English essay test.) In the marking criteria, it states that for an essay to be given a 6 (the highest score), it “Effectively and insightfully develops a point of view on the issue and demonstrates outstanding critical thinking, using clearly appropriate examples, reasons and other evidence to support its position” (emphasis mine). Now, how many times have you heard your English teacher talk about the need for an essay to be insightful? (I hope the answer is “many!”)

I like the way dictionary.com defines insightpenetrating mental vision or discernment; faculty of seeing into inner character or underlying truth. When you gain an insight into something important, you get a feeling of WOW or as some might put it, ZOMGWTFLOLBBQ (sry). That should be the feeling your essay gives your marker. The word that occurs most frequently in my head when I think about insight is the word “truth” (more often than not my brain goes TRUTH in big bright letters). When I read an insightful piece of writing, I feel like I know more about the truth of the world. For example, reading about the neuroscience of meditation and the various sociological ways of seeing the world simply blew my mind (ZOMGWTFLOLBBQ).

How do you include genuine truths or insights in your essays? You have to have experienced that ZOMGWTFLOLBBQ feeling, that feeling or wonder that comes with learning something genuinely insightful about the world. Optimally, by the time you sit for your examinations, you would have experienced ZOMGWTFLOLBBQ numerous times. This will allow you to respond to many essay questions with something genuinely worth writing about. You should have the feeling of “wow, that was a brilliant essay with a brilliant message, I need to blog about it when I get home so that more people will know about what I’ve written” when you step out of the examination hall. You get this feeling either by parroting/modifying a truth you have read about, or by spontaneously coming up with a truth of your own.

(Side note: the English language should have a word for “wow, that was a brilliant essay with a brilliant message, I need to blog about it when I get home so that more people will know about what I’ve written”. I propose ZOMGWTFLOLBBQ. Probably won’t catch on, though..)

Where do we find readily available truths and insights? A really popular place to start is the lovely TED website. In fact, you will often find speakers “demonstrat[ing] outstanding critical thinking, using clearly appropriate examples, reasons and other evidence to support [their] position[s]” (that’s SAT marking criteria again). Another thing you could do is to look for non-fiction books about a subject you are interested in. I personally enjoy books about psychology or sociology, like this.

As a thoroughly rewarding and useful side effect, you get to learn more about the world while you prepare for your big essay examinations. So go get a dose of truth or insight. Good luck!


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