Student essay: Is it the “valley girl” in me?

In recognition of the National Day on Writing (October 20, 2014) sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English, the award-winning Excelsior College Online Writing Lab (OWL) held a writing contest. Using the official 2015 theme “Write My Community,” college students and alumni were invited to submit an 800-1000 word essay on the importance writing plays in their lives.

Two students were selected as winners, Excelsior student Amanda Teschka, and alumna Daria U. Amato, MSN, RN, CNE. This is Daria’s story.

Always Just One Sentence: Or Is It the “Valley Girl” in Me?

By Daria U. Amato, MSN, RN, CNE

Daria U. Amato, MSN, RN, CNE, graduated from Excelsior College (then Regents College) in 1980 with an associate's degree in nursing.
Daria U. Amato, MSN, RN, CNE, graduated from Excelsior College (then Regents College) in 1980 with an associate’s degree in nursing.

I was born in the mid-Hudson valley of New York State. I’m not an up-stater nor am I a down-stater, but rather a “valley girl.” As a young child, I proudly told people this even before the term was coined in popular media. But, being a “valley girl” also meant speaking in a style of language that was not always standard. As with all of us, my language background influences my writing, my style, but I have learned that this is not a bad thing, just something I have to keep in mind when I write.

As a child, we moved around for my dad’s work and eventually settled in the City of New York. Because we moved around, writing became an important part of my life. I remember the anticipated weekly letters from my grandmothers keeping my parents apprised of events, family members, friends, and political situations of our home town. Many times, my mother would read them to us, and I could hear my grandparents’ voices. These voices brought laughter, tears, and certainly evening discussions.

My mother’s older sister was a graduate of New Paltz State Teacher’s College and held a position as a high school teacher in a down-state school. Her letters were more poetic than my grandmother’s, and they read like a good novel. There was always a story to tell. Each person’s letters had a different style. My mother had gone to business school and her writing was formal and succinct, with fine penmanship. Each generation of my family wrote letters, speaking in their own voices, reflecting all that came before them and influences of education and work environments.

News traveled through letters, and since my dad was a Western Union telegrapher, news travelled through wires and printed out on 1/8th inch wide pieces of tape. His writing was very different than the aforementioned group, as he not only had gone to business school but had also attended Western Union School. He was a technical writer. There would be no story in his letters, just information with staccato sentences.

Once in the City, I was enrolled in a parochial school. In second grade, we started taking both school final exams and archdiocesan final exams as well. The exams were constructed like the Reagent’s exams, some short answer and a lot of essay questions – or that’s how it seems to young children, just so much writing!

We learned how to answer essay questions and I “mastered” the art of writing with surgical precision: address the question, answer the question, and put a pretty bow on it to get out of the question. We added Reagent’s exams to the list by the time I was in 8th grade and through high school. However, beginning in 7th grade we had to write compositions, essays, and term papers in addition to the tests.

This is when the pen turns. Writing these longer assignments, one was also required to have more fluid mastery of words, sentence structure, themes, and syntax. As I would write and re-write, there would be a masterful flash! A brilliant light of intellectual genius… or so I thought!

Inevitably, the faculty would return the work with red commentary flowing – even bleeding. It usually flowed near and from the “flash of brilliance.” My mind was unable to comprehend how they didn’t see or understand these pearls of great philosophical thought, or was it that I wrote in “valley girl” speak. Heartbroken, I would rewrite the text. In college, there was more of the same.

Having graduated college and being out in the work force, I had to adopt a format of writing similar to my father’s—report the facts in a direct, sweet and simple manner. After ten years, I decided the time had come to go back to graduate school. I moved off to Washington, DC, but before going, I asked my retired English teacher aunt if she would be my proof reader for my graduate essays. She agreed, and I gave her a new red pen with a bow on it.

I sent her my first really important twenty-five page paper. Several weeks later, it was returned with a note. It read: “My dearest darling Daria, my oldest niece and god-daughter; I have read your paper. It is an interesting topic, full of scientific nurse speak. Your uncle finds it spot on, but he has enjoyed your college chemistry and biology note books as well! Please read my comments on page 9, paragraph 2, the third sentence: it is just pure [I just knew she was going to say it was brilliant] gobbled-dee-goop!”

What!? I gave a copy to one of my classmates, when she made it to page nine, she looked up with tears coming down her cheeks trying not to laugh. YES! She concurred: it was gobbled-dee-goop. Intellectual me, so deflated; “valley girl” me still outraged! After all, my chemical engineer uncle liked it.

Dejected, I rewrote it, though it never sounded as brilliant.

Sadly, many of us have stopped writing. My cousins and I call, text, and email each other. No longer do we take the time to give a salutation, tell a story, and end with familial gratitude. We occasionally reread our grandmother’s letters still kept in cardboard boxes or taped into scrap books. These are fond memories. I don’t think my nieces or nephews could find my address in an address book or phone book, for they only text or email.

So, here’s the moral of my story: don’t let the pen turn on you! Having writing skills is essential in life whether writing for business or pleasure. Our writing styles reflect our consciousness, culture, prior education, and work endeavors. I always tell my own students that if I get distracted by the spelling, grammar, or syntax, I can’t focus on the content or intent of their actual work. I implore them to always have someone read it, because we are too close to the beloved work and lack perspective.

It may be just one sentence of perceived brilliance. So, you need to see if it all makes sense because, sometimes, it’s the “valley girl or guy” doing the writing.