When I was attending Boston Latin School for my education from 7th grade to 12th grade, there was a literary magazine, called The Register, that would come out twice a year, once during the winter season and again later in the spring. I have a little collection of all the ones published when I was there less the first one available to me. I did not pick that one up because I didn’t know know what it is and didn’t have much interest in it. That day I borrowed one from a friend to pass the time on the bus ride home. The Register contained all different sorts of short stories, prose, poems, and art. I enjoyed it greatly. I then changed my mind about The Register. I looked forward to their releases every year to see the things that people were writing.
When 9th grade rolled around, I tried my hand at “writing” poems. I had no formal or informal training on how to write anything except for five-paragraph essays for my English classes. Nevertheless, I gave it a try. After playing with words, stumbling with structures and breaks, figuring where to put what lines where to convey what I wanted, after pages and pages of writing and scribbling and arrows, I wrote something that was five lines long. It was crap (not that I really thought so at the time). The feel of the “poem” was probably more overgeneralized than cryptic, and it didn’t really have that much meaning underneath the words. My “poem” was published on its own page with a fading greyscale picture underneath it. I was happy that it was published so I kept trying to write more things and seeing what came out.
I abandoned my little bound notebook that I used to brainstorm and piece things together out of phrases and words. Anything that poured out of my mind would be written down and revised and revised. I submitted a whole bunch of things (a lot of them really bad too). Most were rejected, but there were always a few that managed to get in. I also noticed that as I got older, the worse the writing in The Register seemed to get. My writing was never good to begin with, but all the pieces in The Register revolved around some teen angst issue. You read one of them, and you’ve read them all. I wanted to change things, so in my junior year I joined the editorial staff.
Joining the editorial staff, as it turned out, proved to be a lackluster effort. I was among the small group of people that had to read over 200 submissions and rate each one on a scale of 1-5. There were very few submissions that I liked. Nearly everything I read was just the same thing over and over. There were only a few that were “different” that broke up the monotony of reading each piece. I was on the staff for only two or three publications. The whole process was just very tiring and tedious. The worst part of it was that every single submission was crap. Everything was awful. The “best” ones were published, and the magazine was still crap.
There was one particular one I recall very well that was (very well) written by a friend. It was the top-rated one, and it definitely deserved to be. The only reason why it wasn’t published was because it contained a school stabbing, and that didn’t go over so well with the faculty advisor. One of my other friends reads and writes a lot; he knows what makes good writing and what doesn’t. He knows techniques, words, structure. He’s submitted crappy things that have made it to publication that were intended as jokes or mockeries of the literary magazine. He wrote a poem for an English assignment five minutes before class and ended up submitting it. It was published along with corresponding artwork to help convey the meaning (which also really bothers me too when the editors do that). I even submitted a stupid rhyming poem (cryptically about video games and their evolution and future), and it made to publication. That was for the last issue when I was in high school, at which point I was glad I had quit the staff.
I understood what kind of “standards” these people were looking for and the stuff that everyone was submitting. I didn’t want any part of it. Things were originally creative when I was in the seventh grade. They were imaginative. They were worlds that people had created and shared with the rest of the world. Eventually, subject matter evolved into smaller worlds. The nature of these pieces became more personal, more introverted, more mundane, less creative, and a lot less imaginative. These people needed to learn how to write. It was as if they were basing their writing on what was previously published in The Register (which was deemed to be good). Rather taking courses or finding resources on how to write, everyone would just imitate what was written before. It became like a pandemic disease because everyone was doing it. The only writing class that is offered at Boston Latin School is the Advanced Placement English Language and Composition. Other than that, these kids are on their own, and they won’t get far if all they’re looking at are recently published Register editions.
My sister has even made submissions to The Register as a joke. She wrote about a thing about an egg and her physics project in about five minutes and submitted it at the last minute. Lo and behold, it was published. She also tells me that it’s only getting worse and worse. People are either very teen angst in their pieces, or they just write about their grandma and her cooking. It’s all extremely overdone and tired. The editorial staff might as well just start taking things off of people’s LiveJournals. The school newspaper has been just the same. The writing was good writing my first year, but totally plunged down the toilet drain when I graduated.
The point is that people need to learn how to write, and write well. That isn’t to say that they shouldn’t give up writing altogether. Improvement doesn’t come like a pack of instant Ramen noodles. It takes time, learning, critiquing, mentoring, and patience before someone develops skill, style, and understanding.