A man said some very not nice things about my friends and about writers yesterday. I can’t sit here and not respond.
Or not make this a teachable moment.
A former advisor in my beloved MFA program had this to say about his former students. I did not have him as an advisor. Something kept telling me that we wouldn’t be a good fit so I never chose him to advise me in my writing. He, however, was the second reader to my thesis and wrote a lovely evaluation of it for graduation. I did think his notes on my thesis were spot on and I used them in the final version. I was part of the class he seemingly loved as he give us as a great send off during our commencement ceremony, the gift of a song.
What I am trying to understand from his comments in The Stranger is at what point did he anoint himself as the best judge of writing? What gives him the right to say some folks aren’t going to make it?
His credentials are impressive.Many years as a Goddard advisor, three published books, a TEDx speaker, executive director and founder of Seattle City of Literature. Not bad.
However, how do these things make him a judge of writing and writers? Respectfully, it doesn’t. It makes him a student of the written word not of the human condition or of the spirit.
Being an advisor doesn’t give you that right to determine who is the Real Deal and who isn’t. I should know, I am one.
I admit, however, there are differences between our advisees. He taught graduate students the art of writing fiction. I teach undergrads the art of journalism. By grad school your skill level, dedication, and, quite frankly, your gumption to pursue the writing life should be the highest they’ve been in life. Undergrads are still learning, discovering, and growing in their writing abilities in a different way than graduates.
However, our roles in helping other writers are the same. We teach, we inspire, we correct when needed, and we guide. We. Guide.
We are truthful, but we don’t pass judgement. Yes, there is a difference.
My job description does not say fortune teller and neither did his. Are there Real Deal students under my tutelage? Yes, there are. All of them are the real deal. They come ready to learn, to do their best. They work hard. Are there excuses they give sometimes? Yes. It’s my job to dispel them and to remind them that there is no room for excuse making. I tell them the truth about their writing. I owe it to them and they owe it to themselves to listen. With each truth, however, is a teachable moment.
I. Am. Their. Guide. I am not their judge.
Each student determines the course of their life. They want to work at the New York Times? Yes, you can do that. At Vanity Fair? Yes. Rolling Stone? Yes. Write a book? Yes. They can do all of that and it’s my job to help them along their path to get where they want to go. They are the real deal because they dare to dream and do something about it. That takes strength. I respect that and so should other writers.
Path. I’ve written about this several times on this blog. Every writer has one. There are as many paths as there are writers. My path is different from yours, which is different from my writer friends, which is different from my students. I mean all my students — undergrads, the ones I’ve taught in my fiction writing class, and those I taught in English composition classes. Since I’m further along in my path than they are in theirs, I make sure to warn my students of the bumps in the road. I tell them this: this is a hard business. Money does not come as easily as it does in other careers. There is heartbreak and rejection. Publishing isn’t easy either. But if this is what you want to do, it’s the best gig in the world.
And it is. I can’t imagine not being a writer in some capacity for the rest of my life. I’m not built for anything else.
Because this writer’s path is different for each writer, with its pumps and forks and meandering ways, comparison is not possible. In fact, it’s irresponsible to compare one writer’s path to another or to say age is a factor of “making it”.
Since when has there been a destination to the art of writing? Is it publishing? Perfecting the craft? The awards and accolades? Writing is a lifelong love affair. It doesn’t matter what age one comes upon it, what matters is that the affair happens.
I was one of the lucky ones who knew early I’d write books. My path took me away from it and the voice I so cherished in my writing. I fought to get back to my writing path, to regain and strengthen my writing voice. That part happened later in life. That doesn’t make me any less of a writer or with any less opportunity to publish or “make it”.
I’ve talked about making this a teachable moment for my students and for those who read this blog. So, here it is. Ready?
In life there will always be those who will have an opinion of you, your life, and your writing. Those people will never go away. But, my darling students, equally there will always be people who are on your side. These folks are not there to stroke your ego but to make you better.
How can you tell the difference? It’s in the delivery. They are strict but just, they are truthful but not intentionally hurtful. They genuinely love what they do and cheer you on, even when you think you don’t want to go on. They bring focus to your writing and sometimes your life. They look for opportunities for you to get better, to be better, and they know your goals almost better than you do. They are your guides. Not your judges.
You’ve got enough of those in your life already.