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!
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