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.
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.