My Writing Journey Started in the Trash Can

January 26, 2024

I did not always consider myself a skillful writer. In fact, back in my high school days, I can recall having the impression that I wasn’t very good at all, and that no one looked forward to reading my thoughts on paper. That impression was certainly reinforced by a singular experience in my senior English class.

When class began that fateful day, Father Tribou stood up slowly and stated, “Sorry, boys. I’m not feeling too good today. I was sick to my stomach all night.” I think I speak for everyone when I say that we all felt genuinely sorry for him, because, well, we respected him and we really liked him. A few of us offered our encouragement, then he said, “I’d like to tell you about why I was sick to my stomach all night.” 

“I was reading and grading your themes last night.” Every Monday, we had to turn in a five paragraph essay on any topic. It was based on the classic belief that repetition makes you stronger and better. It’s not wrong, but without quality feedback, it really doesn’t work that well. He had pushed us the previous week to use descriptive words that make a scene come alive for the reader. I had written mine describing a scene when some friends and I snuck into a country club swimming pool late at night. He continued, “I was doing fine, until I started reading Matthews’ essay.” Every eye turned to me.

Oh boy.

You have to understand, in a Catholic boys school, there is nothing more entertaining than someone being embarrassed in public by a teacher. I know it sounds odd, but it’s kind of a badge of honor. We all get our turn. No one is too good for it. Clearly, it was my turn that day.

He continued, “Let me read you some of the lines that really turned my stomach. ‘As I stood on the high diving board, the quiet was deafening, and the full moon pierced through the darkness, clearly casting my body’s shadow onto the barely rippling water below.’” I’m making the exact words up – I don’t have the actual essay – but that was pretty close. He stopped. “Can you imagine anything more sickening than Matthews on a diving board? I don’t get paid enough to read this kind of stomach-wrenching writing.” By then, my “friends” in the class were roaring. This was high level entertainment, and Father Tribou was clearly enjoying himself. He read a few more excerpts, then said, “Here’s what I think about Matthews’ essay . . ,” then he wadded it up and threw it in the trash can. The class erupted in laughter.

Blessedly, he moved on to my friend Craig’s essay next. I, of course, joined my classmates in laughing about something that seemed way more humorous than what had happened to me just moments before. At the end of Craig’s humiliation, Father Tribou wadded up Craig’s essay and threw it out the window. The class burst out laughing again. He then told Craig to go out and pick up the trash he’d thrown away. When he saw Craig out there, he threw a chalkboard eraser at him. We loved it. Then Craig came back, and as he brought the “trash” back to our teacher, we could all see a perfectly placed eraser mark across the zipper on the front of Craig’s pants. A perfect shot! We all knew Craig did that himself, but it didn’t matter. Even Father Tribou broke up laughing.

Some of you will not like that story. I know. And no, you cannot do that in today’s schools. But hear me out. First of all, who writes a descriptive essay about his own body? That alone merited the criticism I received. But more importantly, that same teacher, who was also my principal, remains one of the most positive and influential figures in my life. He made sure that every student in his school felt safe and known. He taught, principaled, and inspired thousands of young men, and I believe that 99.99% of them would report nothing but admiration and appreciation for having Father Tribou in their lives. If someone could not handle teasing, he would not have done it. And it sounds odd to say, but that criticism made for a great day, and is still making me smile 45 years later.

While my writing might not have been literal garbage, as Father Tribou suggested, I was not a very good writer leaving high school. Over the years, with mentors from college and from life, I have improved. In my jobs as a principal and a superintendent, I learned that parents appreciated a more personal style of writing. If I could blend important information with touches of storytelling, empathy, and even humor, they actually enjoyed reading messages from their children’s schools. That encouraged me to start writing occasional blog posts that had nothing to do with the business of school. And, fast forward to today, I absolutely love writing these posts, and I would call it one of the true joys of my life.

I’ve been writing these posts for about eight years now. My first was back in 2015. In 2020, I started putting them out with some regularity, and now I publish every other week. And this is my 100th post. My friend Ben told me, “I don’t know what’s more amazing – you writing your 100th post or the fact that you’ve kept my attention and interest for that long.” Thanks?

It’s not the only reason I write, but it helps tremendously that people actually read what I write. I have some ways to keep track of posts and how many people read them. My top ten posts range between 450 and 1300 readers, and I average about 350 readers. As my wise friend and fellow writer Nicole advised, the posts that show more vulnerability (Sean, my mom’s dementia, and others) will resonate most with readers. Those posts bring out comments of support, and, even more powerfully, elicit stories of common experiences from readers. So . . . thanks for reading, for seeing me at my most real, and for sharing parts of yourself with me. It affirms what I do, and it makes a difference. I appreciate any feedback that I get – in fact – I love it. So, thank you.

I was listening to an outstanding Ezra Klein podcast, where UCLA Professor Maryanne Wolf spoke about Aristotle’s three lives: a life of knowledge, a life of leisure, and a life of contemplation. Most of us have plenty of access to knowledge, and in the history of the world, more are experiencing leisure time than ever. But what about contemplation – slowing down to reflect deeply, think intently, examine thoughtfully, or meditate upon subjects that matter? That is in short supply. The world moves too fast, making it extremely challenging for us to slow down and contemplate. In fact, as I wrote in my post about paying attention, there are strong forces working against all of our efforts at reflective contemplation. Writing these posts makes me slow down and contemplate what topics are resonating in my mind. It helps me to clarify my own thinking. And it forces me to slow down to find ways to express my thinking in a semi-interesting and (hopefully!) highly coherent way.

I love that in the search for a future writing topic, I’m always writing down ideas in a writing journal. It might be a story from the day, a line from a book or article, a quote that hits home, a memory that came up and made me smile or cry, something I find myself very grateful for, or anything else. Again, it makes me slow down, reflect, and, just by writing it down, imbues the idea with more meaning. It may never again see the light of day, but for that moment, and when I review my writing journal, it’s there.

And I have grown to enjoy the rhythm of publishing a blog every two weeks. At first, I had no schedule, and therefore, my posts were very infrequent. During my first retirement, I posted something every week. I pulled back to one post every two weeks, and I’m very comfortable with that rhythm. During that two-week span, I begin by rereading my writing journals and selecting a topic. Then I ruminate on it, take a few notes, and maybe even read or reread some books that may help me with the post. When I’m ready, I start writing. I try to have a draft ready on Tuesday of the second week. And for the next three days, I’m reviewing it and trying to improve it. I am very appreciative of my son Ryan and my good friends Jen, Dawnalyn, and Heather, who take the time to review and edit. I know that with their support and collaboration, I appear to be a much better writer than I am. My best quality has always been the people I keep close. And in this entire process, I am contemplating and pursuing excellence. My writing could always be better, and I love the process of that pursuit. Finally, on Saturday morning at 7 AM California time, I press that publish button. 

I don’t know where this writing journey will take me, but I don’t need a destination. The rhythm, the process, the contemplation, the interactions with friends and strangers, and the search for improvement always make for an interesting ride. Thank you for being part of this journey that started with a wadded up piece of paper. I look forward to writing #101.

– Mike

To get updates on when my next post comes out, please click here.

Post #100 on www.drmdmatthews.com

Notes:

It helps me to know that even the greatest writers have doubts about their own writing and grow into their own style. My initial title for this piece was “Why I Write.” My son Ryan reminded me of Joan Didion’s essay with the same name, and I found this line. 

During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was. Which was a writer. 

Before you say it, paraphrasing Lloyd Bentsen, I know that I’m no Joan Didion. And therefore, I immediately changed the title! That decision was reinforced by Ms. Didion’s mention of George Orwell’s essay with the same title, where he also shares his growth from a poor excuse of a writer into the highly influential writer he became by the end of his life. 

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18 Comments

  1. Melanie Matthews says:

    I love reading your posts Mike.
    I laughed out loud . I can physically picture that episode in that English classroom.
    Father Tribou was gone by the time Austin was sitting at one those desks, BUT believe me …… he had his time in the spotlight!
    I believe it involved an intercom message and a girl’s name.
    Yikes!
    I enjoy these so much.
    I love that you post on Saturday morning.
    It’s kinda like I see it…. I think 🤔
    I’ve got a minute for this .
    I always take something from it. The interesting thing is that I had read a wonderful quote about moms and sons last night. Then I began contemplating how he became the incredible man he is today. It was a pleasure to read your thoughts.
    Thank you !
    Melanie Matthews

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Really nice to hear from you, Melanie. That must have been a rough announcement for Austin. Ouch. Thanks for enjoying these posts, and I hope to see you soon.

  2. Eileen says:

    Recently, while starting the arduous task of combing through boxes of “keepsies,” and unbeknownst to me, I have discovered that my mother-in-law kept pretty much kept every letter, card, picture, (3) kids’ school mementos that she received over a 20 year period, from our family. What a treasure trove of everyday events, accomplishments, travel, loss, progress, friendships, concerns, advice and confirmation of love and support. It was as if being transported back to 1980 via letters, scribbles, – pre cell phone texts and pictures. The days of hand written letters, and photos requiring careful choices of subjects, not to waste any of the 12 or 24 shots on a roll of film. I was pleasantly surprised at my ability to write as if I were having a conversation. Perhaps not a formal or particularly skilled style, but certainly I am moved at her effort to preserve these memories, gifting me intimate recall of magical, busy, at times trying, ordinary days raising 3 boys. Thank you, Adore 🥰

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Great story, Eileen, and thanks for sharing. What a gift. If you’re like me, you sift through those memories, remember moments you had forgotten, smile a lot, cry a little, and just appreciate all you’ve experienced in your life. And I didn’t say this in my post, but that’s one more reason I write. I hope I have a number of years left on this planet, and however many I have, I hope these posts can provide some memories for my family in the years to come. Thanks for reading and for your insight.

  3. Craig Benson says:

    Well Mike, it was in fact quite a memorable day in that class with Fr. T! Like you, it still makes me laugh every time I think about it! Thank goodness one of us had the drive and initiative to pursue and hone fabulous writing skills! Paraphrasing Virginia Slims, “you’ve come a long way, baby!” Well done and thanks for continuing to enrich all of our lives with your writing. Now, I can’t wait for when you write about the trig/calculus project or Poverty Profile- Little Rock! Or maybe not…!😂😎

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      I’ll need to muster up some courage to write about those, Craig. It’s nice to have you verify my memory. Sometimes I remember back on things and I need to ask people if that crazy thing really happened. Well, yes it did, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Thanks for reading!

  4. Bill Sampson says:

    Mike:

    I am indeed glad that you learned to write. I’ve told you before but will tell you (and your audience) again that my daughter attributes her success in college (BA UC Santa Cruz 2007) to learning to write in the AP History class you taught. Thanks again.

    Bill

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Bill. You know that means a lot to me. And I think I’ve said this before (you and I have no problem repeating a good story!), I considered myself a teacher of writing and thinking, and history was just the instrument that I was using. I had many students who knew more historical facts than I did, and a few students who, even in high school, were more talented writers than I. But I always felt that I could make every student a better thinker and writer, and I took great pride in every student’s progress.

  5. Mark Massey says:

    Memories, like the corners of my mind. Misty watercolor…wait. I hate this song.
    Anyway, great memories of writing the weekly theme paper for Fr T for 2 years. It was a good exercise but come Sunday evening the prospect of writing it was rarely enjoyable. Once I got going though…

    You say 5 paragraphs. My memory recalls that it had to be 3 pages or darn close and single-spaced of course. Great and wonderful times in Fr T’s classes our jr and sr years.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Sunday evenings were brutal. On more than one occasion, I would say to my mom, “I wish I could type as fast as you . . .,” and she would volunteer to type it for me. Mom could do it in about 4 minutes with no errors, whereas mine too 40 minutes and was blotted everywhere with Whiteout. I love my Mom!

      Good question about the length. Three pages single-spaced is a lot of writing – and a lot of reading to do. If my AP history students read this comment, they may react poorly. Good to hear from you, Mark. And let’s keep that singing to a minimum.

  6. Sally Peel says:

    100 more, please.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Sally. I’ve always appreciated your encouragement!

  7. Alan Thomas says:

    I liked this encouraging post very much, Mike. Thank you! If it’s any comfort, I don’t remember you getting the personal “instruction” that day, but I definitely remember Craig getting the eraser shot and the look on Fr. Tribou’s face. And yes, I’m with Mark, when I read the five paragraphs I thought wow, those must have been long paragraphs, as it had to be three pages! That was hard, hard work for two years but an invaluable experience.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Yes – I think you and Craig are right. Three pages. Somehow I blocked that out of my memory. Usually, we exaggerate the past (walking uphill in the snow both ways to school), but in this case, I undersold it. Craig’s eraser print was much more memorable, I agree. Thanks for reading!

  8. Bill McGarvey III says:

    Hey Mike, truly enjoy your blogs. When reading yout latest compilation it brought me back and reminded me of my beginnings! Speaking to a superintendent I probably shouldn’t say this, but I was just an average student, 2.0 all the way just enough to keep me eligible for water polo! I was never diagnosed with any of the latest stuff that people are diagnosed with, but I must’ve had something now that I look back on it! It was difficult! But I accomplished a BA in Business Management decades ago.
    The writing that you’re familiar with that I do for FAST MASTERS team in Fullerton is a real joy for me. I really enjoy the interview process and then “contemplating ” that information to compose an interesting and positive piece!. I enjoy meeting and getting to know swimmers/folks that are on my team.
    I give the opportunity to all to write their own biography, and it is printed in their words. Then there’s the proofreading if I do the writing, I enlisted a Cal State Fullerton English professor to do my proofreading. The time it took her to, correct my grammar, and putting ideas in proper form was grueling on me and I’m sure on her. (She swam with us …you might know her)? So I told her I was taking too much of her time and felt bad so I’ve got a new proofreader. My 45-year-old daughter, who is a graduate of Cal State Fullerton! She likes seeing what her 70 year old father is up to! The proofreading and changes are not as strict as the English professor, and the piece comes out more my style which, “is my style”!
    Not proper, or polished, but in my own words!
    So write on my friend and enjoy writing and all that comes with it. There are many who I’m sure look forward to MM’s words of experience, education and wisdom! Thanks Bill

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Always good to hear from you, Bill, and as always, you are one inspiring man. I knew about your masters swimming column (more on that later), but I had no idea of all that you were doing to make your journey better. I think people love hearing the consistency of your words and phrasing, and I’m sure it’s a big hit. Just so you know, I totally ripped off your idea, and I have volunteered to do the same for my Conejo Valley masters swimming club. The first one will be published any day. I’ll send it to you when it comes out. I end it by giving you the credit for the idea and thanking you for your inspiration. Looks like we are in the mutual admiration society. All the best. — Mike

  9. Kevin says:

    “I don’t know where this writing journey will take me, but I don’t need a destination…”

    Mike I was reading Richard Rohr when I took a break to read your post. Here was the last thing I read, and then looked up, because I had not heard of it before. I found it to be interesting timing.

    Liminal Space – the uncertain transition between where you’ve been and where you’re going physically, emotionally, or metaphorically. To be in a liminal space means to be on the precipice of something new but not quite there yet. The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word “limen,” which means threshold.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      I love that, Kevin. Never heard it before. It doesn’t feel like a precipice, but I guess sometimes we are not smart enough or aware enough to know we are on one. It’s a good frame for me. I appreciate it.

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