Thursday, October 09, 2008

A Life of Almost

This week there's been a lot of talk on the LDStorymakers e-mail list about teachers, English ones in particular, who beat down students' morale—students who have gone on to fight back and become published.

Several writers shared similar stories, some so dreadful I wanted to hunt down those evil teachers.

Other writers had the flip of the equation: a teacher who believed in them whole-heartedly and encouraged their writing genius, which led them to believe in themselves and try to live up to their mentor's belief in them.

It seems that both sides (major discouragement and major encouragement) can light a fire under a student to do well.

My journey has been a bit different. I didn't really have either side of that coin.

First off (for which I'm grateful), I never had an English teacher tell me I was terrible or anything like that. I always managed to be in the advanced English classes, where students took the subject pretty seriously and the teacher expected higher quality work. So I never had to fight against terrible opposition to prove myself.

On the other hand, I never had a teacher gush and praise over me, either. In third grade, Mrs. Mixa read one of my stories and told me to keep writing, but I was in third grade. I'm glad she gave me some encouragement, but I don't recall it being along the lines of, "You're brilliant. This is what you are supposed to do."

Throughout the rest of my school career, I was a good student. A very good student. But did anyone ever pull me aside or write on top of a paper about how I should really be a writer? No. I did write an essay my sophomore year that Miss Drummond thought was kinda funny (about our Drivers Ed teacher, whom we called Squiggy behind his back, and his orange polyester pants), but that's about it.

The other high point was my senior year, when I took College Prep with Miss Drummond (again) instead of the Advanced Placement class. I knew the AP English teacher was a bit of a loon. Plus, he insisted his students read an insane number of classics in preparation for the test. I knew the test was based on writing well-crafted essays to literary questions. If you had half a dozen or so classics firmly under your belt, you could do well on the test. Knowing more books than another students didn't help if you couldn't write a coherent argument to go with them. Miss Drummond taught us to write good essays.

So I took CP with Miss Drummond instead of AP, firmly planning on challenging the AP English test anyway. Around January, she slipped to the back of the room next to me and another student, and told us she thought the two of us ought to consider challenging the AP English test. I hadn't told her my plans, and it felt good to have her confidence. (I got a 5, by the way. Yay me!)

But aside from Miss D liking that essay in 10th grade and her encouraging me to take the test in 12th, I never got a real sense that I was a great writer or ought to pursue it. I ached for that kind of validation. Other students got it, and I always came close. Sometimes very close . . . but usually in second place.


I took second place in a city writing contest my junior year. I was the English sterling scholar alternate my senior year. (Losing to the gal who took first place in that essay contest. That's actually a fun story. Read it here.) For the school literary journal, none of my stories got in, but a small little poem did. I didn't care about the poem. It was the stories that, in my mind, counted.

The "almost good enough" label applied in other areas, as well. All through high school, I was almost good enough over and over again. Several awards, positions, roles, etc. passed me by because I was almost.

The same thing happened years later when I started submitting to publishers. My first LDS-themed novel was rejected with a very nice (and long) letter from a big company telling me why they had almost accepted it. I got a phone call from the same company emphasizing how almost I was. I'm still not sure if the call helped or just rubbed salt into the wound.

I got similar rejections for years, with editors saying, "This is really good. You're a great writer. We almost said yes. But we're saying no. Good luck."

For a good chunk of my life, I've felt like the brass ring has constantly been just out of reach. (Whitney finalist, anyone?)

In some ways, even with my sixth book preparing to come out*, it still feels like that way. I'm not sure why; maybe I'm wired to be dissatisfied. But there's always another level, another place where I'm coming in #2. Now, instead of breaking into the market, it's trying to be at the top of the market instead of almost there.

There was a time I thought I should be happy with where I am. As a teen when I'd moan and wail over failing, my parents tried to make me see that for Pete's sake, I hadn't failed, I was second place. I was still doing great. I didn't see it that way.

As an adult, I can now see what they were trying to say. And, yes, today I'm happy . . . to a point. I'm really enjoying the publishing ride. It's gratifying to see how far I've come. But am I completely content? No.

I don't think I should be, either. If I were content, I wouldn't continue striving to improve my game. I wouldn't have a new goal to shoot for. My work would probably start going downhill, like some authors I've read who have "made it." To me, that's a horrific thought.

The way I see it, not being completely satisfied is a good thing for me. Someone, somewhere, knows that being almost, while frustrating, is what drives me to continue, to improve, to reach—which is why I'll probably continue to fall there.

So I'll keep trying.

*The release date for Tower of Strength has been moved up from April to March. Yay!


Josi said...

maybe all your teachers assumed another teacher was already filling you full of compliments and they didn't want you head to get to big. It' shocking to think that you of all people would have this experience. You are so incredibly talented and driven--and yet, I guess I'm grateful that you've kept aspiring forward. It's certainly inspires me.

Jami said...

I had an English teacher tell me, "You have so much to say that you should be writing all the time." At the time, I thought it was a cool compliment. Now I know the truth. He was saying, "You talk too much and never turn your homework in on time." Oh well.

It turns out that we pretty much become what we work to become, what we have the drive to become, regardless of praise.

Criticism is more powerful than praise for most people. If someone says that I am amazing I can write them off. If someone says I'm a talentless loser that seems to stick around waiting to bite me sometime when I'm feeling low.

Blondie said...

I have never viewed you as the "almost girl", you were the "go-and-get-it girl"--and I've known you for 30 years!

You weren't almost the captain of the drill team, or almost a main character in In to the Woods, or almost on a BYU Ballroom team. You actually did those things.

You may get frustrated when you're not where you want to be, but keep in mind that most of us are aspiring to someday be where you already are!

Annette Lyon said...

Blondie, Good points. Even with both of those, though, I was driven by "almost."

I *didn't* make it onto the drill team my first try, but it was as "almost" as it gets--they filled all but two slots and had three people they were considering for the last two. I went back in to audition again with two other girls--and they dropped me. Getting that close drove me to try harder the next year. I got on and, yep, became captain.

With Into the Woods--two funny bits there. I got a decent role in it after ALMOST getting the role of Hodel with the director's previous show, Fiddler. With ITW, I landed Rapunzel, but the director told me later that I was ALMOST cast as the (much bigger role) Little Red.

I really think that the "almost" thing is my motivator. Without it, I doubt I would have tried so hard to prove it wrong my whole life.

It's a little sick, I think. :)

Annette Lyon said...

(And thanks, Blondie. :) That means a lot.)

Melanie Jacobson said...

I got a 5 on the AP test, too. It's the only one I took but no one really explained to me about AP classes. They just put me in there because I excelled in English but I didn't know until I was at college exactly how AP credits could help. Sigh. I almost had more college credit.


I agree it's a powerful motivator. It's definitely why I tend to excel. I hate almost, but I kind of need it, too.

Heffalump said...

I think that teachers that take an active interest in praising their students are few and far between.

I'm glad you were determined to keep on going to achieve your dreams. Keep it up!

Stephanie Black said...

My first published novel had its beginnings ages ago in a short story I wrote for a creative writing class in high school. The teacher wrote on the top of my paper: "Interesting. Don't stop!" So I didn't. (And this was the only interesting story I wrote that whole year, trust me).

Pre-pub, publication seemed like the top of the mountain--if I got published, I'd made it! Post-pub, I found out that there are now a whole new set of mountains to climb.

Lu Ann Brobst Staheli said...

In defense of teachers, with so many papers to read and correct, there are times they all blend together and you forget who you've said what to when. Also, there are students who no matter how much you praise their writing, they don't think you really mean it. Plus, there are too m any English teachers who simply don't know good writing when they see it. (Sad, but VERY true!) With that said, I will assure you that I have actually helped students get published, and not just in a vanity press. The problem with other English teachers doing this is, they just don't know how. People become teachers for an odd assortment of reasons, and not all of them are conducive to actually teaching kids how to improve their writing, unfortunately.

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

Very thought-provoking. I think I received too much praise when I was in high school. To the point that I stopped trying. Overconfident almost. I'm still trying to make up for the years of lost time.

Tristi Pinkston said...

It's too bad that other people are in charge of deciding if we're the best or not, when we can only control ourselves. We can strive and do our best, but in the end, it's always up to other people to take care of the ranking ... which pretty much stinks.

I'll say this, though -- you're the very best Annette I know! And that's pretty spectacular!

hi, it's me! melissa c said...

It's funny. I had an English teacher in Jr. High who didn't like me. It had nothing to do with talent though!

Sometimes, those teachers who make us feel less than worthy are the ones some people need to push them ahead. Maybe, those people never would have published if it weren't for the extra effort they were forced to give.

Look at Michael Jordan. If he had made his high school basketball team, he may never have made the big leagues. He'd worked and practiced just to show that coach how good he could be.

It was a good thing too. Although, I think I'd rather have the teacher who adored me!

Elisa said...

Oh my goodness. This post is me. I had crappy English teachers, and then a wonderful English teacher.

I am always, it seems, the almost girl. I loved this post for that reason alone. It always feels like I am "almost" there. Almost. Its a good motivator, but also a great discourager. (is that even a word?)

I agree with Blondie-- I would give anything to be where you ARE. But, I'm not even ALMOST there.

Thanks for this post!

Alison Wonderland said...

I'm gonna be honest here, part of me wants to say "oh cry me a river sweetie" but I get that it's a real thing, that you're not content to just sit back now that you've gotten where you are. And I think that's a good thing. Even when we're great we can always improve.
I need the praise, I don't think almost works for me.

Jenna said...

This is a great post, Annette. "Almost" can be a stinky motivator, but you've thrived in spite of whatever got you to where you are, so it must have been just what you needed. I think you're hardly second best anymore.


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