Wednesday, February 15, 2012
I Suck, You Suck, We All Suck
I told my student, let’s call her Judy: Hard to think about doing anything but napping up here today, isn’t it?
We were just a few yards away from the writers’ studio at the John C. Campbell Folk School, which is about as far west as you can get in NC before you hit Tennessee. She had her laptop. I had twenty pages she’d given me to read. Her pages were marked up; this was to be our teacher-student conference, and here I was, talking about sleep.
But I was ready and willing to squint against the sunlight, hold the papers down against the breeze, and chat about her work. I had some notes about narrative momentum and character motivation. Setting. Clarity. All the normal writing-workshop stuff. But, Judy only had one question: “I just want to know whether or not I suck.”
Of course, we all know what she was hoping I would say. Out there under that blue sky so serene we were half-drunk sitting there, looking into it. Or, I was. So in love with the landscape, the sun, I was full of warm-fuzzies—oh, the artist’s life!—and drowsy good will. Judy, on the other hand, was quick-talking. Fidgety. She had been writing for more than a year, had spent a week’s vacation time and several hundred dollars to be here, had spent several days now discussing the writing life with me and two other classmates. She was ready for confirmation of what she already believed to be true.
What she wanted me to say: Of course you don’t suck. Don’t be silly, Judy.
Which is basically what I said. What else could I say? I also gave her my little spiel about the importance of revision and how I believe nothing is unfixable (which I do believe: I don’t think I could teach or do any writing myself if I didn’t believe this…) and that her book was really intriguing and that what she needs to do right now and is keep writing.
Keep writing. This is what Bret Lott, whose novels were my first writing teachers, has twice written to me when I’ve hunted him down and asked him to sign a book.
All best wishes! Keep writing!
It still unsettles me to think of how much stock she put in my opinion. How vulnerable she made herself, to ask the question. Or rather: how vulnerable she revealed herself to be, asking this question.
But then, we writers live that way, don’t we? From validation to validation. From criticism to criticism. It’s a feast-or-famine thing, our tender little writer-egos. One minute, we are brilliant, the next, oh, so sad. So irredeemably stupid. So unforgivably bad.
This April, when I go back up the mountain to teach the same writing class to a different group of students, maybe I’ll incorporate a new mini-lecture. I’ll title it: "I Suck, You Suck, We All Suck. Bad."
It’s true for me and for Judy and for every writer: we will never write as well as we want to. We will never quite reach the it—the highest degree of non-sucking--we’re trying to reach.
Which is what makes my advice to Judy and Bret Lott’s advice to me the only worthy advice out there: Keep writing. Keep writing. Keep writing. Keep, keep writing...