What to tell yourself when someone says, “You will never be a writer.”

August 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

dont stopKelly Braffet, author of the acclaimed new YA novel Save Yourself, published a fantastic blog piece about how she reacted when a high-school English teacher tried to crush her dream of being a writer. You can read the full story here. It’s a good one.

When most writers talk about their origins, they usually cite the high-school English teacher who inspired them and taught them to love reading and books. They talk about those first awkward stories they wrote, and how those same teachers read them and wrote encouraging comments and fanned the embers of their dreams into a blazing passion.

Braffet’s teacher was not that sort:

One day, Mrs. Smith told us to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I wrote about wanting to be a writer. I wrote about how I’d loved books as long as I could remember and was never happier than when I was deeply immersed in a story. I probably added something about wanting to win the Pulitzer by 25 and the Nobel by 30, because that was the kind of obnoxious kid I was. I didn’t really know anything about either except that winning them would be good, but I was young, and I had big dreams. That’s what being young is about.

When this paper was returned, she’d written the following: “I used to want to write mysteries, but as I grew older, I realized it wasn’t possible. Eventually you’ll find a more realistic goal.”

In other words: I was 17, and I told her my dream, and she told me to give it up.

What struck me about Braffet’s post is that I, too, had a “Mrs. Smith,” but we didn’t meet until my senior year of college. He taught the Senior Writing Seminar, which involved not only writing, but researching the markets for your work and providing a report to the class.

Since I was writing science fiction, I reported on Asimov’s and Analog and a few other SF magazines in print at the time. While the other students politely listened and flipped through the sample copies I’d brought, “Professor Smith” (not his real name) didn’t even seem to be listening. Unlike when other students presented their markets, he asked no questions and looked at none of the publications. In fact, the expression on his face was how I imagine he’d react if I’d dropped a dead rat on the table.

When it came time to workshop my story, he again showed no interest and offered no input. The other students gave me some good notes, while Prof. Smith sat silent and looked bored.

And then there was my one-on-one session. We were supposed to meet with Prof. Smith in his office for individual discussion three or four times throughout the semester. Each time I scheduled a meeting, he’d be unavailable. Finally, the ONE TIME I met with him, he told me he didn’t read that science fiction stuff, and therefore “didn’t know what to do with me.” While he didn’t come right out and say it, it was clear he felt I wasn’t serious about becoming a writer. Real writers were artists of the written word; I was a genre hack.

I don’t think I can capture (or perhaps I don’t want to capture, even now) how dispirited and humiliated Prof. Smith made me feel. He took all the wind out of my sails, and for years after that class, I felt like a hack every time I tried to write a science fiction or fantasy tale. I knew I shouldn’t let him get to me, but he did anyway.

I wasted a lot of precious writing time because of Prof. Smith. Years, in fact. He’s not entirely to blame for my lack of writing success; in fact, I would say he’s not even mostly to blame. But he did have a very large negative impact.

Don’t let the Mrs. Smiths of the world step on your dreams. Tell yourself loudly and repeatedly, “She’s wrong.” 

And keep writing. Finish that story or that novel. Polish it. Send it out to editors and agents. Start the next one. Never give up. You can do it.

Did you have a “Mrs. Smith”? What made you realize he or she was wrong?

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