Decades ago I took a university writing class with a respected and much lauded professor who rattled off a list of rules that all good writers must absorb as the writer’s bible, and then declared why none of us undergrads would meet his requirements even if we conformed. My penned notes on his first lecture filled many lined pages with not a single doodle enhancing the margins. The papers were creased with the sweat of my hands as I’d written, the ink smudged by the nervous energy of trying to listen attentively and commit every significant comment to the notebook. For posterity, for future reference, for guidance in my lame efforts to become a writer. His final words, actually even his very first words, were that he’d like to see far fewer faces at the next lecture because we were not the students he wanted to teach.
At the end of his class, I walked out of the room with my head reeling, a sense of illness brought on by the knowledge that the previous four years of college pursuit were a total waste of time. As he’d accused, though he’d addressed the entire room of 40 or so upper level students, I was unqualified to ever attempt to write a story, so ignorant that I couldn’t function within the narrow corridor of competence as he’d described. I couldn’t live by his rules because I was already a total failure. He spoke to all of us but I took it personally. He spoke to me.
The dizzying buzz in my brain assured me that I was as incompetent as he’d expected me to be, that his initial evaluation after calling my name from the attendance record confirmed his suspicion that I would never live up to anyone’s expectations of successful writer – or successful anything. Perhaps dumpster diving might suit me. At least then I had the potential of dredging up something useful from the bottom of the bin, something practical for the life of a loser. That’s what he expected of me, of all of us. It was that class, so late in my long years of attending college, and a few rejection letters (that I’d been warned I should expect for the few stories I’d submitted for publication consideration, rejections being the norm for new writers) that convinced me I didn’t have the right stuff. That I didn’t have the write stuff to be a writer. With only this final semester of college before I could graduate, my credits hovering on the maybe-not-enough-units line, and a bank account that couldn’t support one more semester to make up a failed attempt, I dropped his class. Frantic rearrangement of department allocations for a few of my classes, and I did manage to graduate “on time,” but my wobbly confidence fell over the cliff. After college I did little to pursue writing as an actual career and eventually created a measure of success in another field.
How many of us who wanted to become someone – a ballerina, a rocket scientist, an inventor, an ambassador on behalf of our country – found ourselves waylaid by the doubt of stepping outside the hallowed halls of university and encountering the real world of looming bills, demanding employers, and sewers to be cleaned? I wasn’t the first, the only, the last. It took me decades to understand that the famous professor’s clever manipulation of an apprehensive young woman produced exactly what he wanted me to become: someone whose papers he didn’t have to read or grade. I was what he’d nurtured: a drop out and a failure. I was also what I’d nurtured: a fool cowering at the bottom of a dumpster.
But what the famous professor didn’t count on was that I would scrabble from the dumpster and gather myself as a person of merit. He didn’t consider that I’d have something more than his rigid rules or qualifications to measure success. I have passion about what I do, what I write. Passion carried me through a whole crapload of insecurity. I survived a latent start to surface from the dregs of the bin to make a person out of the nervous aura of the student. I’d never been a brilliant prodigy but I’ve always been resilient. And I’d always been passionate about who I was, what I might become.
Nearly 12 years ago I resurrected my dormant desire to write. I wrote with a frenzy, stimulated by then-current needs to change who I was, and an aged longing to do what I felt I should have done with my life. Late at night the computer glowed and hummed, helping me craft and hoard my novels. When I wasn’t near the boxy beast, I thought writing and kept penned notes about what to revise, what to write next. The excitement of my childhood, of my early college years when I envisioned becoming the next great Dickens (Charlotte, of course,) enervated me. I’m encumbered by practical needs and responsibilities, all the everyday necessities that get in the way of a creative life – like most of us – but nothing can stop me writing now.
I finally learned what a smarter student would have learned in that first class: an indifferent teacher cannot make me a bad writer. Only I can do that. Likewise, only I can make myself a good writer. The rules may assist or impede but if I write with passion, ain’t nothing gonna get in my way, baby. Put that in your cup and stir it up, drink it down, and get outta my way. I am a writer. That took a very long breath and a voice from deep in my diaphragm, but, there, I’ve said it: I am a writer.
And here’s the coup de grace: I can no longer remember the name of that luminous college professor.
Be well, friends.