Flannery O’Connor famously said, “Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” Granted, there’s probably more than a nugget of truth in what O’Connor said, but this quote has me thinking of the teaching of creative writing and what I can offer my students, or the people I meet in any of the workshops I teach at writers’ conferences in the summers. It’s not my job to be discouraging. My job is to find something positive in everything I read, something I can point to and say, “See, right here? That’s where you’re a writer.” Then I owe it to each student to be honest about what I see as his or her shortcomings. I offer the caveat that opinions about one’s talents are often subjective, and the writers should feel free to take what I say with a grain of salt. I make clear, though, that from my perspective here are a few things they need to work on if they decide to keep writing. I want people to feel confident enough to continue to work at their craft if they’ve decided that it’s important enough to merit their further efforts. Let the process itself determine whether they should be discouraged. Who am I to crush anyone’s spirit or call into question the validity of the work they’re trying to do? I want them to listen to me with the thought that, if they do, they might become better.
I’m thinking of all this because I just came back from the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, where I was happy to spend some time with a friend who was a former participant in a summer novel workshop that I taught. The manuscript that she brought to that workshop is now her first novel, to be published Valentine’s Day, 2017. By the way, I’m going to keep everyone anonymous in this post since I’m about to repeat a story I haven’t asked permission to repeat. I’ll leave it to this first-time novelist to decide whether she wants to reveal her identity or the identity of the other writer who figures prominently in her story.
At any rate, this morning our first-time novelist was telling me how she first met Famous Writer. She’d gone to her first writers’ conference, and for some reason, she, a writer of literary fiction, was assigned to a children’s author for an individual critique. That critique was brutal, so brutal that my friend left the room in tears and was so distraught all she could do was crumple against the wall in the hallway. That’s when Famous Writer came by, took note of her upset, and kindly asked if he could be of help. She told him about the critique. She said, “I’m going home.” Famous Writer asked if she happened to have another copy of her ms. She did indeed. “Why don’t you stay?” he said. “I’ll give this a read, and tomorrow we’ll have breakfast and chat.” At breakfast the next day, Famous Writer started talking to her about using sensory detail to make a piece of writing come to life, and my friend left feeling heartened and with something concrete to work on.
And she kept working, and now, come February everyone will be able to see the fruits of her labor. What would have happened had that children’s author had the last say? Thank goodness for Famous Writer, and countless other teachers like him, who talk about craft, who present their criticism along with their praise, who encourage while also teaching, who understand that their purpose is not to bolster their own egos but to offer what they can in the way of practical advice for improving another writer’s craft.
My friend’s fortuitous meeting with Famous Writer took place 28 years ago, so you can see this is also a story that testifies to the power of perseverance. “So many people asked me why I didn’t just quit,” my friend told me. “I couldn’t quit. Writing was so much of who I was.” And now, in addition to the novel that’s coming out, another novel has won a large prize for a novel-in-progress. “It’s like I’ve turned a corner,” she said. Indeed, a corner she may have not negotiated had it not been for Famous Writer and his kindness.
I offer this story to all of you in hopes that it may help you through some of the tough times that come to all writers. It’s a life-long apprenticeship, this writing business. If you’ve decided, like my friend, that it’s also such a large part of who you are, keep doing the good work. No one can tell a writer to quit except that writer him or herself. . .and, even then, we don’t always listen to ourselves. We keep going because we have something to say and we have to say it.