The best thing a professor ever said to me was something that should never be said and yet it’s something that most of us tell ourselves frequently.
As a freshman in college I was somehow, mistakenly, placed in a very exclusive honor’s English seminar. My rural schooling was completely inadequate to the demands of this class, but I was a voracious reader and that meant that my thoughts and essays could obscure my failings in grammar and spelling. And this frustrated my professor to no end.
By almost any measure, I was the brightest student in this small group. We met around a table in the library, not in a classroom. The discussions were mostly flat. The other eighteen year olds were frightened and intimidated. This man, Professor Wallace, was a bright light in the English department and urged and pulled, but it was hard to move these students. But not me. I went toe to toe with him. I disagreed. I proposed. I wrestled for control of the conversation.
This didn’t bother him. He loved it. But he was incredibly frustrated at my error-filled papers.
This was before personal computers, spell checkers, and grammar support. I was on my own at the typewriter. And yes, my papers were filled with spelling errors, grammatical nightmares, and outright typos.
And then one day, meeting with me in his office his exasperation got the better of him and he said, “You will never amount to anything!”
I was surprised, but for some strange reason it didn’t depress me. I went out and bought a better dictionary. I worked harder. I asked others to review my work.
And I passed the course. I can’t remember the grade, but I don’t think that I ever received below a B in anything other than calculus. And I signed up for every advanced English and literature class available.
I carried those words with me. “You are wrong,” was my refrain. I think that it is entirely possible that his six words are what made me a writer.
He’s dead now, so I can’t thank him. He should not have said what he did. He was wrong about me and wrong as a educator. I’m a playwright, an author, and I have a world-wide readership. I’ve made a very good living as a writer and still do. I still make spelling errors and grammatical mistakes.
I can do better.
When you tell yourself that you’ll never amount to anything you are wrong. Use that, if you can, to do better. Work at those problems. Prove yourself wrong.
Writers are not born. We are forged in fire. Only those of us who work at it turn out to be any good. When rejected we try again. When told that our work isn’t good enough, even if we’re the one saying it, we pick up a blank page and start anew.
Not all can become great. Very few make any money from their writing. Fewer still make a living. But I believe with all of my heart that anyone who really works at it can become a good writer, a better writer.
I did, over the protestations of Professor Wallace. I believe that you can, too.
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