(Traveling abroad I couldn’t offer my short-story class this spring. Don’t think I haven’t missed my students. Here’s some advice of the sort I’d be passing along in class. It’s from March 2010. I’ll be back next week.)
My new Facebook friend, Kelly, sent me a message the other day. Here’s part of what she wrote:
So you believe everyone has a story in them. I agree. The hard part I find is getting that story onto paper in a form that matches what my mind was trying to say. . . . I suppose my problem is that I want to be a great writer—and nothing less. And that is the problem. I am not a great writer and I hate to waste so much time producing an inferior product. I have tried a lot of things and found that I am pretty good, compared to the average Joe, at a lot of things, but am masterful at none. And at my age, that sucks. I would at some point like to be good, really good at something. So wish me luck.
What writing teacher could read that and not have lots to say? I asked her if I could put my response in a blog post, because it’s stuff I feel strongly about and that I tell all my adult writing students, who, just like Kelly, have signed up for a fiction class at night.
Dear Kelly –
I run into students all the time who walk in thinking they’ve made a big mistake, that there’s no way they’ll ever be as good as the writers they’ve enjoyed reading and who have inspired them to try it themselves. I don’t lie to them and I won’t lie to you: Right now, you’re probably not as skilled as the authors you enjoy. But my question is: So what?
Getting published, getting rich, getting famous—these are false standards for a person like you, who have a story in her and whose goal is “getting that story onto paper in a form that matches what my mind was trying to say.” You can meet that goal if you work long enough and hard enough and pay attention to the things that feel or don’t feel right to you when you read them back to yourself. Only you can know—story by story—when you’ve met your goal.
I grinned when you wrote that you’re “masterful at none” of the things you’ve tried. Here’s some secret wisdom: That “masterful” thing is an illusion. Even the most renowned and influential of writers have worried themselves sick, and many have drunk themselves to death, wondering if they were any good. None of them have gotten as good as they wish they were. Forget that stuff. The real joy for mortals like you and me is in doing the thing, in getting better the more we do it, and in doing it some more.
Then you added: ”And at my age, that sucks.” Some not-to-secret wisdom: Your age doesn’t matter. So long as you have your wits about you, you’ll be able to write. It takes very little in the way of muscle mass or hand-eye coordination. You can start writing your first story today and keep writing more stories till they start pumping you full of Aricept. And even then, if by writing you feel as if something that’s in you—something that needs to come out—is getting to see the light of day, then it’ll be worth doing. You’ve got a condition called gottawrite syndrome. So write some stories. Good things will happen.
With every confidence in you,
The top photo is of Kelly and her family. The other is of a bust she did of her husband.