For any writer, even the "overnight success" kind, the road to publication is long and rocky. Rocky, in its most basic form, takes the form of the cold cruel world. Rocky can also be a dear pragmatic friend who urges you to shelf your writing dreams because "isn't it time you quit shirking responsibility and get a job with health insurance?" At its most brutal form, rocky describes the way we writers lacerate ourselves. When it comes to our work, a lot of us tend to be pretty Opus Dei. I'm always a tad suspicious when a person tells me they love something they just wrote. I might sort-of like something I've written--for a minute. But then my inner critic surfaces to tell me that I ought to consider a different career, like digging ditches perhaps (which is probably very rewarding because you don't have to delete anything and also, it's a great calorie burner).
Now it's time for a serious moment. In my 36 years, I've had a total of seven creative writing teachers. Two of them are now dead from drug overdoses that weren't necessarily accidents. I think about these two wonderful mentors all the time. Both of them were established writers and teachers. Both had a wide following. Here's the real kicker: in both cases, they were dealing with major unexpected obstacles in their literary careers. Please note that I'm not trying to depress anyone. If you are feeling depressed I recommend that you google the performance MIA gave at the Grammy Awards the day she was due to deliver her baby. Very uplifting and inspirational. The point I am taking far too long to make is that you can't lavish enough encouragement on a writer. At whatever stage in the literary game, writing is damn hard. The blank page can seem like a black abyss. In our darker moments, when our dreams of authordom seem toxic to ourselves and everyone we love, when our bank accounts are in the double negative, when we can barely muster up the will to keep writing or even to sneeze, we writers think back on earlier positive encouragement. We feed on it. Words that probably cost the giver nothing to say, words that might have been uttered an offhand way, sustain and keep us safe from our demons of self doubt. They are the flickers of light that keep us moving forward.
And yeah, I'm talking about myself here.
My writing career begins at the end of my tenth grade year, when I asked my teacher if I could transfer to the AP section of English for my junior year. In spite of my impeccable grades in her class, she said "no." My handwriting, she claimed, was "too messy." No, I am not kidding (on a side note, she also hunted birds and was prone to saying things like "if it flies it dies"). While this provides us with a fine illustration of early discouragement, what it meant was that when college rolled around, I had to take a composition classes since I hadn't gotten to go the AP route. My teacher for my composition class really liked one of my essays--so much so that she entered it into a college-wide competition. To my great surprise (and horror given that I'd written embarrassing stuff about real people and used their first and last names) my essay ended up being published. Which was pretty life-changing. For the first time a teacher, had signaled me out as being "good" at something. More importantly, I realized that I actually had something real to say.
This brings us to one of the professors who died (we'll call him Sergio).
Sergio and I had a rocky start. Sergio, in addition to being a creative writing professor, was Chair of the English Department the year I applied to the creative writing program at my college. After reading the short story I submitted with my application, he called me into his office and told me that he couldn't, in good conscious, recommend me to the program (this would be another example of early discouragement but bear with me a second). I very maturely responded to his proclamation by bursting into tears. It wasn't the worst strategy to employ. Sergio "allowed" me into the program after all. I'd guess I'd shown him that I wanted it. Wanted it bad. Whatever "it" was.
My college had a very small creative writing program, which meant that Sergio and I had each other for a total of four courses. We got to know each other well. I came to... not hate him after a while. One day I even decided that he wasn't half-bad. Flash forward to my final course with Sergio called Writers On the Edge. The premise of this course was that we were to write stuff that would make our parents vomit. This, Sergio assured us, was the mark of outstanding writing. The day for the big critique of my story finally arrived. While my twenty classmates dissected the words that ultimately did make my parents ill, Sergio sat back and watched with folded arms and a smug expression. After everyone was finished, he said, "I don't have anything to say because in my mind this story is absolutely perfect!"
Imagine soaring music. Imagine a parting sky. Imagine little angels descending with harps.
Unfortunately, Sergio said something else that resonated with me even more: "You will only become a writer if there's nothing else you can do." At twenty-two, there was something else I wanted to do pretty badly: I wanted to be a ski bum. I made good work of ski bumming, but after a few years of the crappy meaningless jobs I'd taken to support my habit, I realized that I'd started to hate skiing. I realized that I wanted to make a difference to other people by using words to connect with them.
The practical thing to do, I concluded after much angsting, was to get a degree in journalism or teaching. For better or for worse, however, I was not/am not a practical person.
Instead I enrolled in an MFA program at Bennington College. At Bennighton, I had the four best teachers in the world: Susan Cheever, Bob Shacochis, George Packer, and the late Lucy Grealy. These four stellar individuals certainly had a lot to say about what wasn't working in my writing. But they had even more to say about what was. Their encouragement inspired me to set the bar higher and higher for myself. I wrote my heart out for them because they believed in me. Though I had yet to come around to believing in myself, I respected my teachers enough to trust what they said about me, and to believe that I was throwing something precious away after I graduated, quit writing, and tried to be realistic about life. Luckily, there was an even BIGGER problem than my bottomless self-doubt. Not writing was literally driving me crazy (and everyone else around me except for my cats who tolerate me as long as I feed and pet them). I really couldn't function, I realized, unless I became a writer.
Finally, I came back to the thing Sergio had said: "You'll only be a writer if there's nothing else you can do." Only this time I actually heard what he was saying. He was talking about me. He was talking to me! He was, in fact, encouraging me. Only at the time, I was too blinded by fear to know what he meant.
I've rambled on for a while about some specific things that made a difference early on. But I'm also amazed when I look back at the more recent years I spent as a drive thru bank teller. Imagine, if you will, me trying to explain to my customers and coworkers that "sure, I could put my advanced degree to a more practical and financially rewarding use" but that I "was trying to buy myself time to write." While there were a few folks who acted like I was a big phony or looney (both things I suspected of myself), the overwhelming majority took me at my word. They believed in me. They told me to keep at it. They kept me going.
What a gracious thing it is to believe in a person. It matters. It matters a lot.