Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Real Writer

Not long ago our neighbour, who is a teacher, asked if I would look at a short story that had been written by one of her students.  She’d been telling the class that she lived next door to a “real writer”.  She knew that I liked to write because I, like an idiot, had told her so.  I thanked her for the compliment but demurred.  I suggested she approach the well known novelist who lived around the corner.  But she was insistent.  Finally I agreed to read her student’s short story and immediately had an epic bout of impostor syndrome.
While it’s true that I write and write nearly daily, have a novel, young adult novel, various short stories and a bagful of poems under my belt, I was uncomfortable with her calling me a real writer.  There could only be one reason for these sudden feelings of inadequacy.   I haven’t been published.  Even as I write that I feel somewhat ashamed.  It’s like my writing life is a dirty little secret instead of something that I should be proud of.  Tell anyone you write and the dreaded ‘have you been published’ question is the first thing out of their mouths.  But not this time, this time I was, for the first time, dubbed a real writer.
As I read this student’s story (all 28 pages of it) I found myself mentally critiquing it.  She was too wordy, she constantly shifted tense, her characters did a lot of talking without saying much and the plot was weak.  Did I mention that the author was in fifth grade?  My neighbour told me how this child loved to write.  It was natural for her.  It reminded me of myself, as a child, excitedly writing a very dramatic and angst ridden short story for 8th grade English.  I loved to write too.  I thought that I was pretty good.  But what I needed at that age was for someone to tell me so. 
I remember approaching my teacher,  Mr. Brown,  at his desk, paper in hand, sure of the praise I was about to receive.   He had a rumpled, unkempt, scholarly look and I couldn’t wait to show him what I’d written.  I always think of that moment as pivotal to the psyche of my newly hatched writing desires.   As I got closer to the desk I remember that Mr. Brown had seemed distracted.  Perhaps he had trouble at home, maybe he’d had a bad performance review or he’d wanted ham instead of salami for lunch, I’ll never know.  But suddenly I felt hesitant sure that his mood was somehow my fault.  I should have gone back to my desk right then.  Instead I said, “Mr. Brown could you look at what I’ve written so far?”
 Now every writer knows that it was more than 2B lead on newsprint paper that I was handing over.  It was much more.  I loved my story.  I thought it was great.  But I needed to hear him say it.  I needed to hear him say “You’re a really good writer Angel.  You should keep writing.”  Only he didn’t.  All l got was a half hearted wave of the hand and a “yes, yes Angel it’s good”.  What was that supposed to mean exactly?  Did it mean ‘yes, you are a great writer but I’ve got students with real problems to deal with’? or was it a casual brush off to a mediocre writer?  I don’t even remember what mark I got on my story.   But I will always remember that dismissal and in that moment any confidence I had in my writing was waved away like so many eraser crumbs.  
 This young lady whose paper I held in my hands loved to write and she believed in herself.  I realized that what I thought didn’t matter.  It was what she thought of herself that made all the difference.  I wish I knew that then.   I wish Mr. Brown did.

When I finished her story, I stacked the paper neatly and wrote this on the front page.
“Dear Eunice, 
You are a great writer.  I loved your story and the colourful characters you’ve created.  I’m sure I will see you published one day.  Keep writing.”
I hope that she does.

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