Monday, August 26, 2019

Everything I Needed to Know About Writing I Learned While Taking Exams in College

As I noted in my previous blog post, I’ve never considered myself a writer. Thinking back to when I consciously identified writing as a distinctive act—probably in college—I never considered it part of my identity. The act was simply too painful. That I did well in school proved only a temporary salve to my pain. 

I learned how to succeed in writing assignments. I’d start them well before their deadlines. And I wrote—early, and, at times, excruciatingly slowly. The process of such writing, primarily research-based or analytical essays, was fraught with fear, worry, and anxiety. I wanted to do almost anything else but write, including reading, taking notes, even memorizing. Putting pen to paper was simply too painful. Thank goodness I started on assignments as early as a I did. The end product was good, perhaps even great at times. But it simply didn’t reflect the agony I went through to produce it. Nor did I feel much of a sense of accomplishment above and beyond earning a high grade—in other words, the external validation for an effort and resulting work product I’d just as soon forget. 

Now, exams were another story. Sure, I felt incredible comparable pressure and anxiety. I lay awake at night running through names, dates, and places (as I was a history major), while fretting I didn’t know the material as well as I should. This anxiety and feared peaked the moments before the exam was distributed, as pristine blue exam booklets lay in front of me, awaiting my entries on their lined pages. 

Then, as I looked over the exam questions, something clicked. Always! Even on the rare occasion when my first glance at the exam question stoked fear and doubt, the ideas instantaneously flowed. My mind was filled with everything I had crammed into it while preparing for the exam. And I started to write. And write. And write. And write. I filled one blue book, then a second, and so on.  I only stopped when I was forced to do so, as final exams were limited to three hours. In some instances, I could have gone on much longer. Nonetheless, I was physically and intellectually exhausted at the end. 

In these circumstances I was focused on emptying my brain of everything I knew that I believed would respond to the exam question before me. I wasn’t nervous, anxious, or worried about what I would write.  If anything, I often felt as though I needed to do no more than continue to move my hand and only feared that I would run out of time before I had the chance to exhaust my knowledge on a particular topic.  I didn’t need to think, as I knew the material so well that it felt like it was a part of me. I simply needed to step aside and let it flow through me onto the pages of the blue book.

One example stands out. I took a class on medieval English history during my senior year of college. My schedule was such that during the designated finals period I had one pending project: the final exam for this course. I had five days to prepare for it. I spent nearly every waking minute of those five days rereading course books and my notes. In the process I internalized a rich narrative about medieval England, chock full of names, dates, places, and corresponding analysis.  

The exam date came. Once again, I started writing immediately and didn’t stop until instructed to do so. I felt as though someone or something else was guiding me, and the ideas simply flowed through my body to the blue book in front of me.

Early during the following semester, I ran into the instructor of the medieval England class. He saw me, shook his head, and said, “Mitchell, your exam. Wow. It was a question of overkill.”

Yes, it was. But more importantly, as I reflect back on this experience, I could see how writing could be a very different kind of experience. One that was difficult, but nonetheless enjoyable as I relaxed and simply let the information and ideas flow from my brain onto the paper or computer screen. Yet it took me several years, and a lot of anxiety and effort, to fully embrace this perspective. Now I do. And I love to write. 

Little did I realize then, as I do now, that everything I needed to know about writing I learned in college—while preparing for and taking written exams. 

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