Thousand-Word Themes and Other Middle School Horrors

Regular readers know that I use this space from time to time for youthful reminiscences, which is cheaper than seeing a therapist for my unresolved issues. Apparently I have quite a bit to say about my formative years, and with age comes the courage to finally tell the tales I was reluctant to tell before. The rush of such airings comes from sharing that first anecdote. When the ceiling didn’t fall in, I got brave enough to write another. Five years later, and followers of this blog have learned a great deal, but there are likely more tales to be told. It all has to do with thoughts and memories as they occur. Memories don’t return in chronological order, which accounts for my skipping around in print.

Some recommendations for summer reading!

My previous post came from remembering my earliest experience with arts education, and in that piece having to do with first grade I mentioned in passing that I was a very quiet child in class even though I could have out-talked every other kid in school. Away from home, very few people were aware of my verbosity. Before sixth grade I was never turned around in my seat talking to my neighbor. At least I never got caught. I barely spoke during piano lessons though there was commentary running through my head. People who met me for the first time described me as very quiet, but when they saw me thereafter they wondered if I was the same person as before.

While editing the previous post, I noticed that the piece had surpassed a thousand words. I hadn’t realized that I’d gone on that long about a first-grade art class. The term “thousand-word theme” came to mind as I uploaded the article, and with that thought Mrs. B. from middle school appeared in my head.

As intense as my first grade art teacher, Mrs. B. also used to scare the hell out of me. Several years ago I wrote a piece about her late colleague down the hall, and she surprised me by posting a comment. I had no idea she remembered me or that she had ever read anything I’d written. Her words brought a smile to my face, and if she’s reading this, she should know that in spite of the anxiety she caused me, I learned a great deal from her during our time together. Life in the present-day United States requires a strong civics background, and I think how much better off we’d all be if she’d been able to teach millions of us.

While there were incidents that occasionally elicited her outrage, my class never received either of her two favorite forms of punishment: thousand-word themes on a subject of her choice or outlining the current chapter of our textbook.

Because I rode the bus with kids from other classes and glanced at their punitive assignments, I was constantly worried that I’d be required to rearrange some future evening in order to think up a thousand words for a yet-to-be-named topic.

Even now I can recall the apprehension that in a single night I might have to come up with something meaningful to say about the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Term papers were about 2,000 words and, as the name implies, require time to research, organize thoughts, and complete several drafts before handing in the final. Finishing a thousand-word composition in a single night was impossible!

Decades later, I’ve become extremely comfortable with a blank page, and a thousand words in an evening is one of the easier things I can do. I do not procrastinate with writing unless it’s an act of delayed gratification. In a recent interview I was asked if I ever get writer’s block. It happens to all writers, but I explained that my block is usually a sign that I need to take a break. At other times, I have a difficult time keeping my work concise. I aspire to Hemingway’s economy, but if there are no restraints, grocery lists and birthday cards are about the only things I write that stay under a thousand words. I can do it if I must, but I’m already at this piece’s 700th word and still haven’t reached the end!

Perhaps I require more focus or a heavier editorial hand, but I love words too much to wrap things up in a hurry. I read at a slower pace in order to savor a writer’s style. Writing novels provides me with occasions to take readers on longer journeys, and speaking opportunities provide forums for telling stories faster than I can type. Nevertheless, even with the luxury of space, I’m constantly concerned with word count and timing as though I’m flying a kite in a strong wind. I have to remember that what gets unwound must be rewound at some point lest the line snap and the kite blows away forever.

It was this week’s intention to include a story about a professor from graduate school who shared Mrs. B.’s affinity for outlining chapters, but it would take hundreds more words for her backstory alone. It’s best to conclude with 863 words and fly that kite another day.

© 2019 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, especially the two mysteries featuring Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at:



5 Replies to “Thousand-Word Themes and Other Middle School Horrors”

  1. So it wasn’t just me who develop essay-angst! I breathlessly await the next kite-flying!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So nice that Mrs. B remembered you. I’m not surprised. And yes, if only we were all educated in civics. I savor YOUR writing style, Patrick. You weave words like a magician.

    Liked by 1 person

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