Wednesday, March 20, 2019
WRITER 2 WRITER: THE VOICE THAT COUNTS
As a teen, I often entertained grandiose visions of becoming a best-selling novelist one day. I spent most of my spare time writing anything that came to mind: poetry, plays, short stories, journal entries. Then all my dreams were shattered in a single moment.
Ms. Danson was a tall, imposing woman who looked more like a football player than a schoolteacher. She prided herself on the fact that she knew every spot on campus where students could ditch class and hide. She should know because she had graduated from our school only a few years earlier. This was her first teaching job and I was unlucky enough to get her for English that year.
Now, as a student I was not anything special. However, I excelled at English. The only thing I loved more than writing was reading. I had fallen in love with literature during my freshman year thanks to Thelma Chapman, a vivacious English teacher with a delightful British accent. Due to my nearsightedness and my love of English, I always sat in the front row, but Ms. Danson seated her class alphabetically, and since I was the only “W” in class, I was relegated to the corner seat in the last row.
Our reading assignments that year included The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I was sure Mark Twain himself would have slept through Ms. Danson’s lectures. To make matters even worse, we were to write a term paper on it. I was pretty good at poems and stories, but I wasn’t so good at term papers.
One afternoon Ms. Danson called me into her office. She slid my paper across her desk and instructed me to open the cover. I did so and found a big ‘D-’ scrawled in red ink on the title page. Ms. Danson proceeded to flip through the pages detailing all the mistakes I had made, from the lack of transitional phrases to putting my commas on the outside of my quotation marks. Red marks adorned every page. All I saw was red, and that ‘D-’ seared itself into my brain like a branding iron.
Then I did something that took Ms. Danson by surprise. I started to cry. I put my head down on her desk and wept like a heartbroken child. Though Ms. Danson had not said the actual words, what all those red marks told me was that I was a failure.
Perhaps if my experiences with writing had ended there, I might never have picked up a pen again. Fortunately, tenth grade ended and the next year I was assigned to Elizabeth Rose for English.
I had heard rumors about Mrs. Rose, that she was unusual, and perhaps she was. She was a tiny woman with long, straight platinum blonde hair. She wore four-inch heels, short skirts, and a lot of make-up. She was animated, moving her hands and her head when she talked so that her hair bobbed up and down against her shoulders. But her most distinctive feature was how much she loved teaching. It was evident in everything she said and did. Red marks were few and far between. Instead, she covered her students’ papers with rubber stamped images – she had hundreds in her collection.
When Mrs. Rose read a story, the words jumped right off the page. I often sat with my elbows on my desk and my chin propped in the palms of my hands as I listened to her read Rebecca, Gone with The Wind, or The Haunting of Hill House. I fell in love with literature all over again that year, and thanks to Mrs. Rose, I picked up that pen and started to write again.
Unlike Ms. Danson, Mrs. Rose accentuated the positive. Instead of a term paper, she put us in groups and told us to write “Gone With The Wind – 10 Years Later.” She told me I had talent, that I was a writer at heart and should pursue my dream. Now, having spent more than a decade as a professional writer, I am living that dream every day.
What made the difference for me? The answer is simple. Someone believed in me. Someone took the time to focus on my positives and let the negatives take care of themselves. I wasn’t a perfect student, but Mrs. Rose saw potential where Ms. Danson saw flaws. In time, I learned how to use punctuation correctly and how to write a proper bibliography. More importantly, I learned how to organize my thoughts and put them on paper. That would never have happened if I had never learned to see the qualities in myself that Mrs. Rose saw in me.
The point I want to make is that as a young writer I was vulnerable to criticism. Not that learning proper grammar and punctuation wasn’t important, it was. But for a short time I listened to the criticisms of others and allowed them to crush my dreams. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to find someone who helped me discover my own worth as a writer and to get back on track toward fulfilling those dreams.
Writers always receive criticism. Whether you’re a novice just starting out or a famous novelist getting bashed by book critics, there will always be someone more than willing to point your flaws. The trick is to keep your eye on your dreams. Listen to those whose comments and suggestions are meant to help you improve your writing, and ignore those whose only intent is to see you fail. If you dream of being a writer, don’t let anything or anyone stop you. And remember, the most important voice to listen to is your own.