Welcome to the end of the semester, that time when desperation is palpable among my undergraduate students, and who knows, maybe even my MFA students, too, but they’re too cool to show it. Relax, I want to tell everyone. You’ll get everything done, and you’ll do it well, or maybe not so well, but you’ll do it, and that’s the important thing. It’s the effort that’s most valuable. The result is, for the most part, immaterial.
Here’s the thing no teacher should ever say, but I’m going to say it anyway. Those final grades? When it comes to a life of being a practicing writer, those grades don’t mean a whit. They really don’t. The grades we get have nothing to do with all we’ll learn on our writers’ journeys. To say you’re an A writer or a B writer when you’re nineteen, or twenty, or twenty-one, or whatever age you happen to be as this semester comes to an end, is only to say, here’s my best estimation of your talent at this particular point. I have to say it because the university demands it, but the truth is you’ll have many, many particular points as you continue to practice your craft. Any grade I give now is no reliable predictor of future success or shortcoming. Ultimately, the marketplace will tell you that, and your grade has nothing to do with that sort of commerce. No editor, agent, publisher ever asked me for my GPA.
Even the marketplace—the publications, the awards, etc.—can be a liar. A lack of recognition threatens our self-esteem and makes us doubt our talents. An abundance of acclaim seduces us into a false sense of our worth. The most accurate gauge of our worth as writers comes from those moments in our writing when we know that we’ve expressed something genuine and true, something only we could express, and in a style that could only be ours. You’ll know it when it happens. You’ll hear the ring of authenticity, and you’ll get a feeling—maybe a quickening of your heartbeat, maybe a flutter in your stomach, maybe a chill on the back of your neck—and you’ll know this is why you write, so you can come to moments like this, moments in which you are truly alive on the page, engaged with your living and with the living of others, and how can I or anyone else ever put a grade on that?
“And by the way,” said Sylvia Plath, “everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” Indeed. So here’s what you have to promise yourself: Never let a teacher or an editor or an agent or a publisher make you doubt yourself. They know nothing about the life you’ve lived, the struggles you’ve had, all the hours you’ve worked on your craft, and the blessed moment when you know you’ve written a good, true thing. We all have our stories to tell. Remember what Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Promise yourself you’ll never let anyone take your voice from you and, thereby, keep you from telling your story. Grades, rejections, acceptances, honors, and disappointments: They’ll come and go over a lifetime of your craft. Don’t listen to them. Keep your mind on the work ahead of you and the beautiful act of a writer fully engaged, fully present, fully able to speak. “A professional writer,” said Richard Bach, “is an amateur who didn’t quit.” That persistence outside the realm of evaluation—that’s the key. Swear your allegiance to it. Keep doing the good work.