I did something crazy for an old woman like me. I enrolled in a free online rhetorical writing course. Here is my first essay about how I entered the world of writing; a wonderful world of thoughts, symbols and values.
Have you ever heard of a “nervous nellie?” It’s an old phrase from early American times when a horse and wagon were used to carry supplies. A nervous nellie was a wagon-hitched horse which became timid or worse–jumpy in a situation. As a young girl, I attended a small Catholic private school where writing situations were an everyday event. And to my school teacher’s disappointment, I was a shy nervous nellie in class when it came to writing.
Oddly, I was great at recitation. I enjoyed reading out loud and often raised my hand as a volunteer. But writing? Words never came easy to me. I fumbled with writing basic sentences. I took to copying verbatim from encyclopedias for all my class reports!
My family tried to help me but to no avail; my notebook paper like my mind remained fearfully blank. As I grew older, my writing timidity only got worse. By high school age, I wrote as few sentences as possible in order to receive a passing grade.
It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties when a life threatening crisis happened to my younger brother. It was then that I discovered that I could write. In fact, I received a comment of praise from the mayor of our city for the persuasive clarity of my writing. Let me explain how that happened.
In 1974, my younger brother Bill had completed his training as a police office. During his academy days, I watched him as he returned home from training. Sitting at the dining room table, he’d share with me the training he received that day. Part of his academy training also included a report writing class.
Police officers write in a special kind of shorthand. It’s based on two elements: code and observation. As an officer, he was given a manual which listed codes of behavior and situations. He was trained to use these codes to speak to emergency personnel over a radio.
In addition to the emergency codes, my brother learned to write concise but detailed narratives of his patrol activities. His written homework involved reports of car accidents, robberies, hit-and-run, neighborhood complaints, even shootings. We would sometimes sit together as he did his homework. I would ask questions; he would do the writing.
“How do you know what to write?” I asked.
“Simple.” Bill responded, happy to share his new knowledge. “You have to be very methodical.”
“You mean, step-by-step?” I said reticently.
“Yes. You can’t miss a thing.” He said confidently. “A small detail could make a big difference to the people involved and the outcome of the case.”
I loved listening to my brother talk about his work. His details were precise as he described the color of hair, size, approximate weight, position, clothing even demeanor of a suspect. After his graduation, he was assigned to an area near home.
All was well until the morning of September 28, 1982, the day before my 32nd birthday. Not long after 6am, I received a phone call. This was the call that would change my life as well as my perception of writing forever. The call came from my sister-in-law—Bill’s wife. He had been shot.
The shooting had happened just a few hours earlier, she was in a state of shock.
“What happened? I spurted.
“They’re not sure. But he took multiple shots.” Her voice cracked under the weightiness of the words. Silence filled the telephone receiver.
“How is he?” The words came slowly. My sister-in-law and I had become very close after their marriage. We spent many weekends talking about kids, family, married life. We both felt the strained disquiet and painfulness of not knowing Bill’s true condition.
“He’s in intensive care unit. They have police officers guarding his room. I don’t know…”
From that moment, I began making a mental list, rehearsing it inside of me. I remembered my brother’s words: “You have to be very methodical.”
Later that day, we learned that he had stabilized. The doctors moved him from intensive care to surgery. They wanted to remove the bullets from his arm and lower spine. But by the end of the surgery, the one in his lower back remained inside of him. The bullet had lodged too close to the nerves; its removal would have caused more damage.
After the surgery, Bill began his slow return to health but not without a fight. With each doctor visit, medical bills arrived at the house. Who would be responsible for all the medical treatment and necessary medications? Disability questions were raised but not answered. Full rehabilitation was not guaranteed. Then, it happened.
A postmarked letter arrived saying that the treatments he received were not going to be covered. Disability payments were on hold pending State review. A response was needed. But neither my brother nor his wife was physically or emotionally ready to respond. The shooting had taken a cumulative toll on both of them. Their resources had been exhausted. I found myself thinking how a written reply would sound.
I began the letter, “Dear Mr. Mayor.” And like a trainee writing a report to his Commanding Officer, I began to list the dates and times, people and places, actions and responses. I gathered the information and I listed it all down. The columns of words flowed out onto the paper.
The letter turned into two pages then three. I don’t know from where the clarity or strength of voice came. I knew that I had to write my brother’s story of his courage and his conviction to protect and to serve. I asked if the Mayor’s office would see about the troubling letters. I requested that his office approve payment for the treatments so necessary for my brother’s recovery. My sister-in-law signed and mailed the letter.
Some days later, a call came from the Mayor’s office asking for my brother Bill. He was told not to worry about any of the bills, his job, or his rehabilitation. And then it happened; the Mayor told Bill that he had never before received such a persuasive and eloquent letter.
Two years later, my brother received the medal of valor for the shooting in which he was involved. I stood in the audience and watched as he walked across the stage and received his badge of honor. Proudly, he took his seat among the other heroes recognized that day for outstanding courage and bravery.
And that is the story of how I came to be a writer. Many, many years have passed since that letter went public. Honestly? I still feel some nervousness when facing a blank page. I still make lists. I still gather my information. And, if I get stuck and those timid nervous-nellie feelings return? I do what my brother taught me: “One, two, three, write what I know, say what I saw, let my words flow to the page from my heart.”