The Age of Aquarius and Mimeographed Worksheets

No Telling
(Scribbling Paradisio by Dore’, with a little help from me.)

I taught at a traveling writing workshop this summer down in Harmony Grove, Arkansas. School teachers, tired ones, met with us in that sweet but woebegone way public teachers do at the end of the school year. This is when they love their students the most but are cheerfully able to say good-bye for the summer. The workshop was splendid, and you can read about it here and here.

We used a book I’ve had in the workshop arsenal for a few years called The 9 Rights of Every Writer: A Guide for Teachers. It’s geared towards educators, but it’s a fine fist-in-the-air book about what every writer needs/deserves. These are breathtakingly simple. Every writer has the right to:

  • reflect
  • finding personally important topics
  • go off topic
  • personalize the writing process
  • write badly to unearth and clarify meaning
  • observe other writers at work
  • assess constructively – and well
  • experience structural freedom
  • unearth the power of each writer’s voice.

This is a powerful book for teachers. You see, most of them are scared to death of students’ writing because many teachers don’t see themselves as writers. That’s an important hurdle during the workshops.

As an opening scribbling prompt, my partner-in-workshop-crime Stephanie asked all the teachers to pick one of the rights they wish they’d had as students. Good opener. We all began writing. Kind of.

My pen hovered over the page for a bit. It had been a few years (coughcough) since I was a public school student. I tried to summon up something, some writing experience gone awry or pinch-nosed schoolmarm with a bleeding red pen. Nothing.

The thing is, I was a public school kid in the Age of Aquarius and Mimeographed Worksheets. With the exception of one senior-year research paper, all I did was fill out purple-inked (you know you can smell them) grammar and punctuation mimeos. They were like a puzzle, really. All you had to do was figure out the pattern.

In public school, no one ever tried to teach me how to write. Huh.

But the writing happened anyway. I began as Harriet the Spy and became the girl with the contraband poetry books in her locker and a Secret Notebook in her purse. I wrote incessantly, mostly terrible poetry then published in the high school literary magazine, but would never have devalued my late ’70s coolness-mystique (good lord) by being on staff. My plan was to be Gloria Steinem and Sylvia Plath. Simultaneously.

That morning in Harmony Grove I ended up writing about the freedom students need to scribble outside of standardized testing and five-paragraph nightmares. I wrote about the freedom to be left alone with the words, to develop fearlessness and a casual attitude because everything we write isn’t stark reflection of our worth. It’s practice. It’s play. It’s necessary.

They’re just words. We can always make more.

So go write something.

32 thoughts on “The Age of Aquarius and Mimeographed Worksheets

  1. I admire that ice breaker. There is nothing like asking what was missing from one's life to get people writing. Luckily for me, I was educated in the age of self-involvement, and creative writing was all the rage. Though I am not a writer, nor do I aspire to be one, writers are the only people I could not do without (Barring all necessary medical staff, of course. Far be it from me to turn down a pacemaker if the time is right). If I were to be told that, from hence forth, I could read nothing but the Sunday Times I would surely garrote myself with the nearest nylon.

  2. I love that: everything we write isn't stark reflection of our worth. You hit the nail directly on the head; I've always felt that if someone reads something I've written, they will surely judge my worth–as less than positive, of course. They're just words. We can make more. I'm going to repeat that to myself also–here, at work, anywhere I'm starting to write something.
    Thanks for your insights!!

  3. I have such a problem with the standardized tests. I freak out. I can't write on topic to save my life. I go on tangents. Anybody that's ever read me knows this. So I make sure to circle “WRITE ABOUT THE TOPIC IN YOUR OWN WAY”, underline it like ten times, and then I somehow miraculously pass the writing portions of the tests. With perfect scores. I am so confused by this.

    I am jealous of your school experience just being spelling and grammar worksheets, I love spelling and grammar but hate structured writing…

  4. I've just discovered this blog. Great! I'll be back. And as soon as I am back at school, during my writing classes or when assigning writing tasks to my students, I'll remember this post.

  5. I could smell the mimeograph as soon as I read the title. Thanks for reminding me with your list of why I love to write. Reflection being the best of all. 🙂 M

  6. I think I got “high” from snorting those mimeograph fumes in grammar school!

    Thanks for the advice. I have never fancied myself a “writer” and will take these tips to heart.

  7. I still know a teacher or two who uses those old purple ditto copies. Yikes.

    Julia, I believe you're part of the first-wave of No Child Left Behind graduates. No wonder you have test anxiety.

    Oh! a good companion book to 9 Rights is The Right to Write, by Julia Cameron. Excellent reading, especially for those who feel writing-hesitant.

    I'm so glad you're all here! Y'all go write something today, even if it's trash.

  8. Love, love, love this post. I thought I would pick just one of the “rights”….I couldn't! I especially favor “finding personally important topics,
    go off topic,
    personalize the writing process,
    write badly to unearth and clarify meaning. Oh my gosh, I remember being an assistant in the school office and making copies with the purple ink machine!
    I plan to share this post with my granddaughter(writer) who is in her lst year of college. Thanks!

  9. E-books, go write like mad.

    I remember when my daughter was a h.s. freshman, Miss Bus. She quit listening to me shortly thereafter, so hurry up and say everything you want your girl to hear. The clock is ticking…

    You're absolutely welcome, Steven.

    Kim, I taught h.s. English for years and let me tell you it's the most joyous and frustrating career anyone could choose. I still miss it every single day. Go for it.

    Thanks for passing this on to your granddaghter, Bcp. On Thursday, I'll be awash in frightened, excited college freshmen. It's a good time to be teaching!

  10. Bender is a little bendy.

    I love having a Zen Mama with us,and can't wait to read your blog, gal!

    Frero, was this a bid for attention?

    E-Books! You have an assumed name – how mysterious. I love the “An”.

  11. Oh Monda, Harriet the Spy is the reason I have scribbled in notebooks hidden in every house I've ever lived in. My little Grace and Max do, too.

    I hate the five paragraph formula for writing. Hate it. Maybe that's why they don't call me to sub at the high school anymore :0(.

  12. Candace, neighbor-ladies used to find me hiding in their broom closets and under beds doing my Harriet the Spy thing. I even had a make-shift tool belt/stretchy Brownie uniform belt with all manner of writerly implements dangling off of it.

    That was a Very Important Book.

    Thanks, Morgan! Do come 'round again and again!

  13. Monda, love the snappy, common sense writing advice from Ms. Cameron. I think we've all had experience with those writing teachers who don't know they can write, and therefore just reinforce truisms like “those who can do, those who can't teach,” which the good writing teachers like yourself then have to disprove.

    The subject of mimeographs separates us geezers & Boomers from you younger folks even more effectively than talking about record players. BTW, it might interest you to know, Monda, that one contemporary cultural niche that still uses mimeographs is the tattoo industry. Those purple dittos (oh, I'll never forget that smell…) are perfect for transferring a tattoo design onto skin, as it happens. The boomer who did my recent tattoo was telling me how hard it is to get mimeograph machines these days. He's scored some vintage ones here & there that he uses in his shop. So if, in your vintage office equipment travels, you come upon any of the ditto dinosaurs, you might want to grab them up for resale to your local tattoo parlor. Just a thought. You could perhaps attract a whole new audience to your Fresh Ribbon blog — these tattoo artists are all over the web nowadays. 😉

  14. Kathi, all I'd have to do is make a trip the local high school for an old machine. All that stuff (the record players, film strip machines, etc.) is still in in the back of closets.

    Where on earth would I find the ink? Nevermind. I can find anything.

    By the way, you should see those nervous writing teachers transform into fearless scribblers during out workshops. It's almost a religious experience – for all of us.

  15. I remember those days in freshman writing class in high school – every single sentence of each carefully plotted paragraph had a purpose. I know it's important to teach young minds structure and organized thought when it comes to writing, but sheesh. It was so confining. I had already written a couple of novels and they wanted me to waste six sentences summing something up? Ha. Writers don't sum. Journalists do.

    I suppose I would have liked the right to go off-topic. Really, writing about my favorite holiday? I would rather have given them a taste of a deep-space confrontation, but nope! Not on their time. 😛

    By the way, I like your blog.

  16. And I like YOUR blog, Saphron. Strong writing on there. I'm guessing it didn't come from perfecting the five-paragraph essay.

    All that structure teaches you, well, structure. Not a bad thing, really. It will never help you find a strong writing voice, though. Some, like you, find it in spite of all that.

  17. OK, you're mixing printing machines here. Two totally different machines and processes, there's the mimeograph and then there's the ditto. The mimeograph uses actual paste ink. You 'cut' a plate either by hand or in a ribbon typewriter. The ink passes through the plate onto the paper. With the ditto machine you can actually use carbon paper and rubbing alcohol in a pinch. Using the special ditto paper you type or draw on your master. The master is attached to the drum of the machine and as it is turned the ink on the master is moistened with the ditto fluid and pressed on the paper as it continues it revolution. There are other colors than purple and you can have multiple colors on one master. Purple seemed to print longer and more consistant than the other colors. Mimeo copies did not smell and they were usually black ink.

  18. We've been set right! It looks like what we're talking about here are ditto machines – I remember hanging out in my dad's office and cranking the drum handle on the ditto machine when I was a wee thing. These machines might have printed in multiple colors, but all I ever saw was purple. And they DID smell, just like all the worksheets I ever had in school. So ditto it is – thanks, Moonshadow!

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