I was just reading a writer-friend’s About Me page on his blog (go check him out: T. Ansel Knemeyer, fun reads). Struck by the similarity of his relationship with writing and my own, I thought I might post about it.
We writers are a sensitive bunch.
Whoa! Smooth down the hackles! That’s not an insult! Just a fact, madam.
The act of writing is very personal. Think about it. Whatever it is we write, it is personal. If you’re writing a note to your spouse (Taking out the dog for a walk!), compiling a chore list (clean bathroom, clip toe nails, wash hair), or writing a letter to a family member (Hey Sis! Did you sort out the rent with your live-in boyfriend?), it’s all very personal. You expect your writing to be seen by one, maybe two, people at the most. And you expect an immediate, personal response.
When writing an essay or a letter to an editor or even a blog post, we are cognitive that others (gasp! strangers!) will read it, but even so our writing is still personal. It’s a part of ourselves that we put forth for validation.
Come on. You know it’s true. You may tell yourself you write just for yourself, but really you need (desperately need) to know whether your message was received. When it’s a note to your husband, the validation is usually pretty quick (Oh, yeah, thanks for letting me know you were out with the dog.), but when it’s a work of fiction, something you poured your heart and soul into, validation may not come at all and even when it does, it may be in the form of a snide remark (Don’t quit your day job!).
Let me tell you a story.
When I was in the sixth grade, our English teacher got breast cancer. She had to go away for a couple of weeks to heal after a mastectomy. I knew nothing about her operation or her illness, but over the years and through snippets of gossip, I figured it out. At the time, all I knew was that Mrs. Hill was sick and we’d be joining the remedial English class for two weeks with Mr. Johnson.
Our elementary football coach, Mr. Johnson had a great sense of humor and could keep forty screaming children, twenty of which turned their noses up at the other twenty, in some semblance of order. But he had no idea what to do with the ‘smart’ kids from Mrs. Hill’s class.
Let me set the record straight here: Though I was at the bottom of the Advanced English class, I am (and was) very smart. I, like my friend Ansel, didn’t get why I was pegged the worst in English writing, but I was. So when we got to go over to the remedial class, I secretly thought, Great! This will be easy!
And it was.
Mr. Johnson asked the advanced students to write a story. He thought that would keep us busy and out of his hair. And all of us from the advanced class thought it would be cool to have all these finished, polished stories to give to Mrs. Hill when she got back. A win-win.
A little stumped on what to write about, I approached Mr. Johnson and asked what the subject of our stories should be. He told me to make it up, write about whatever I wanted. My big, brown eyes grew wide. As far as I know, that was the first time I was told to write whatever I wanted.
Boy, did I write.
I wrote non-stop for a week and a half. I wrote on the school bus while kids threw spit balls at each other. I wrote after work on the farm, my dirty hands smearing sweaty mud stains onto the paper. I wrote during lunch while everyone went off to play tether ball. I wrote.
When I finished, I handed my notebook to Mr. Johnson, sure that I would get the same response I always got from Mrs. Hill. A deep frown and red marks galore on the page. But the next day, Mr. Johnson announced to the class that he had a special treat for the entire combined English classes.
He would read us a story.
He read my entire story to the class (took three days, I had filled the notebook). And the kids enjoyed it! There were a few of the advanced students in the advanced class that poo-poo’d the non-literary style, but just about everyone else thought it was pretty good.
More importantly, Mr. Johnson loved my story! He said it was better than most of the fiction on store shelves. He said I was gonna be a writer some day. I thought someone had hit me over the head and I was hearing things. I think I walked on air the entire weekend before Mrs. Hill got back.
She had heard about my big story. Her daughter, a co-student, sequestered my very first manuscript and took it home so that her mother could read my brilliant story. When Mrs. Hill got back, she handed me my notebook, not a single note on it, and said with a deep laugh, “You’re going to be a scientist. Not a writer.”
I fell back to the ground. Scuffing my shoe on the concrete floor, I sheepishly said, “Yeah, I know.” I stuffed my notebook into my backpack and didn’t write a another fictional story for 30 years.
Unfortunately, I don’t have that story anymore. I have vague memories of a castle, a few evil ghosts, a girl, and a sword. One of these days, maybe I’ll try to re-imagine those characters and re-write that story. Maybe I can re-capture those few moments of glory. 😉