Learning to Be an Author
When I was younger, I don't think I ever seriously considered writing as something I would like to do. I really didn't think that I was any good at it, and throughout that time school teachers and counselors pushed me toward more "worthy" professions for my intellect.
My grades were always excellent in math and science, and it was a foregone conclusion to most people that I would enter some sort of engineering (computer, mechanical, chemical) as my chosen career. I listened to them, without even the slightest understanding what any of those professions entailed. I was smart enough for any of them, but as it turned out, I wasn't particularly interested in them.
I explain all of this because I think that many writers start out the same way. People tell them that it isn't a "real job", and there is a supposition that anyone can do it, it doesn't require any real skill. As much as it might cause me to bristle, I have come to accept that because a large segment of society views writing this way, it will never be seen as a primary skill worth paying for.
Most employers do desire people who can communicate well via the written word, but it's viewed as a secondary skill. The qualified candidate does something else really well, writing effectively is just a bonus. This is reality, and it is a powerful deterrent for most people who know that their primary talent is writing, but are forced to take some other job to pay the bills. The end result is that during the course of your life, you are forced to choose between something you like to do and are really good at versus something you can do, but feels a little empty in terms of personal satisfaction.
I reached a breaking point, luckily in some respects, in college, before I had real responsibilities to worry about. Amidst the piles of calculus that I understood but hated, the boring lectures of organic chemistry and the droll prattling of the physics professor, there was a shining beacon. My freshman English class.
It was a requirement no matter what major you had chosen, you couldn't avoid freshman English. To make matters worse, my section ended at 5:30 p.m., including...on Fridays. The teacher, a graduate assistant, vaguely masked her contempt for her own situation and channeled that onto her students. The first classes were borderline terrifying, as she gruffly laid out her expectations for us, and that good grades in her section were nearly impossible. I wanted to drop the class, but couldn't if I hoped to stay on pace for my education. I was stuck.
Our first assignment was to write a paper about someone we admired. My impish side could not resist the temptation to profile Rush Limbaugh, knowing that universities are well-stocked with liberal-minded people. If this teacher was going to make me suffer, I was going to make it rough on her. I chuckled as I churned out page after page of glowing prose about the conservative radio host on my typewriter (by god, yes I am old enough that computers were not ubiquitous enough for everyone to access).
I turned it in expecting to get slaughtered based solely on the subject matter, even though I knew I had done some of the best writing of my life up to that point. The grade didn't matter, I wanted to make a point that I wasn't about to cave to some overbearing grad student whose career path wasn't taking off they way they'd hoped. Then the "A-" came back, with notes about how even though she hated Limbaugh on a person level, the paper was generally very good. I was surprised, but mildly disappointed that I hadn't gotten under her skin the way I wanted to.
One of the other assignments in the class was to give our own lectures, around 15 minutes in length, about some principle of English writing that the teacher would choose. Mine was on exigency, about why a particular piece of writing should exist. I took the assignment to the extreme. I copied every last single one of the teacher's mannerisms: her bandaged wrist due to carpal tunnel, how she shook her hand when writing on the chalkboard, right down to the can of Diet Coke that she guzzled between sentences. Mouths were agape. My classmates looked mortified, and the teacher had her head down busily scribbling notes.
"Imitation is the greatest form of flattery," she wrote on her review of my performance. "Couldn't have done it better myself, including covering the material." Now I was confused, maybe I was good at this. The conversations with people in my class seemed to bear this out - they were struggling to pass, my grade was high.
Each time I turned in a paper, I was greeted with a better grade than I could have hoped for. I actually started trying to write well for her. For the first time in my life, I actually did revisions and turned in something other than a first draft. The fifth paper, an assignment to write a narrative about something that happened in your life, came back with no grade, only a note with a time for me to come to her office hours. I wasn't sure what to think.
When I got there, she handed me another copy of my paper, with an "A+" at the top and notes about improving a sentence or word here or there. She told me that she knew this was the best writing she was going to see all year (including the next semester) and demanded that I revise it for submission to a writing review that the university published each year. I was floored, I had never given a second thought to being good at writing. I had never even applied myself at it until that class.
I didn't know it then, but that was the point where I started down the path of pursuing a career in writing. It wasn't a cut-and-dry decision, but rather a progression away from "real jobs" and toward something I actually liked. I was published in the review magazine, just as my teacher had predicted. She asked me to seriously consider taking other classes in the English curriculum, even though they didn't align with my Computer Engineering major.
After a few other sour experiences the following semester, I came to the realization that she was right. She had said that she knew that I could do the engineering thing, and be good at it. But she said I was too gifted at writing to take up a profession where I would never get to use it or grow it. I quit the engineering program and dove into Communications. (Journalism to be precise, another story for another day.)
I know that "gifted" is in the eye of the beholder. Even great writers occasionally write stuff that is lousy for whatever reason. But sometimes it takes someone telling you that you're good at writing for you to understand that you actually might be. So what was your turning point?
I learn something new everyday.