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.
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.
To get updates on when my next post comes out, please click here.
Post #100 on www.drmdmatthews.com
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.
- My first post was One More Hill, published on February 21, 2015
- Ezra Klein’s podcast with Maryanne Wolf – more here
- My post on paying attention
- My 2020 post of gratitude for mentors who made me a better writer