Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 29, 2009

Welcome to a Life in Writing, or Watch Your Back?

I recently spoke with a former student who told me she’d stopped writing, discouraged by harsh criticism in workshops. I spoke of this to someone else who told me she’d just begun to write again, ten years after someone found fault with her work. Like just about every writer, I’ve heard both sweet and cutting words about my prose. What keeps us going? Some of us turn to a few words, probably forgotten by their speaker, that encourage us through tough moments, or years, or even decades. I took a fiction writing course in college from someone known to have standards so high he couldn’t finish much. I remember a day after class when we left the building into the rain. He snapped open a black umbrella and said, “You’re good. You could probably be a writer.”

As usual in those days of being shy, I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.

Then he said, “That may be best and the worst news you’ll ever get. It’s a terrible life.”

Even at the time I knew this said more about him than me, but for years I wrestled with those words as if they were an actual blessing or curse. I silently swore, a bit naively, as I was, that I could write and have a happy whole life, too.

I grew up to write and teach and encourage students who show a spark, but I’ve never walked through the rain with anyone and suggested they’re good writers but may want to turn around before stepping into the mire. But … would I have listened or remembered so well if my professor had just suggested I had something and didn’t pair that with a sense of being doomed? I was lucky in my choice of husband, blessed with a daughter, good dogs and a laptop, but certainly my writing life has had its share of rejection and stalling and disappointments. Maybe it was just as well to brace myself as well as hope.

Do any of you have benediction stories?

And my wish for your new year may be to enjoy the beauty of your work and withstand its hard days, too.



  1. Intriguing. I got encouragement from writing teachers in college, but no warnings to brace myself. Instead, I remember the head of the English Dept. committing suicide. Didn’t bode well for us underlings.
    You’re right about how a few words/scraps of positive feedback can sustain you for years sometimes. I kind of wish someone had warned me of the struggles ahead . . .

  2. I have a malediction story about becoming a psychologist. I was going to apply to grad school and a friend said “What makes you think you could get in?” and I gave up. I look back on the incident in wonder, because I wouldn’t now…
    As far as benedictions, one friend who is now a famous writer told me I’d be the best if I ever wrote fiction. I have no idea why he thought this, and so far I have only done non-fiction, but it does give me courage.

  3. Wow! I’m not sure what I’d have been saying to myself inside–I’d have been as silent from shyness as you at the time! I guess I have heard how hard it is over the years, but I just don’t know anything else to do that makes me as happy, on the flip side of that hardness.
    I, for one, am glad you hung on!

  4. That death must have been so haunting. I might have changed my major.
    Jama, wishing you just the right words of encouragement for 2010. And fewer struggles, and more celebrations.

  5. Whoa, maledictions. I wonder if your “friend” even thought about what they said.
    But yes for the words that give courage.

  6. Thanks, Becky – yes, I think by that point I’d already felt some of the hardness in the process, but felt some of the rewards, too. I remember someone who seems so absolutely not like me in that class reading a story and saying that she felt just like the character I wrote about, who was pretty much me, and connecting like that seemed so amazing.
    There are the black umbrella days, but sometimes we do snap them open. I know you are going to have a great 2010!

  7. That story belongs in a book. 😀

  8. That’s such a poignant story.
    My college professor told me I had the markings of a good editor. He said that was much rarer than a good writer and he would introduce me to his editor at Little Brown, if I wanted to pursue that. He meant it all as a compliment, but it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I wanted to be a writer.

  9. Isn’t it terrible how a few words can make us give up on what we love doing? I took a writing workshop in college and the professor was a lovely woman but very quiet and shy. Because of that, the students in the class tended to tear each others’ work apart without any real guidance. There were some people in the class who “got” my writing, but others really didn’t and wanted it to be more like what they would have written. It was such a frustrating experience that I gave up on writing for a few years. Luckily, I found my way back. 🙂

  10. Thanks, Jenn.
    This morning at breakfast, my husband asked, “So who was that teacher?”
    And more of the story unraveled over tea.

  11. I’m glad you followed your heart. And editing skills certainly don’t hurt a writer! I’ve always been glad I taught some grammar in high school so I can recognize prepositions that dangle or don’t.
    These stories though remind me to be careful of what I say to students, who may remember much much longer than I ever will.

  12. I hate those stories of people tearing apart each other’s work. One can raise a bar without being destructive. I have to hope that those like you who stop for a bit are learning during that time not writing. And I so do love stories like yours of finding a way back. Sometimes those voices that are first misunderstood become the most creative.
    Have a great new year!

  13. What a double-edged comment!
    My own writing life has its bad moments (some of which have brought me to my knees), but many soaring ones, too. And wonderful, wonderful friends. Which counts for a lot.
    For me the teacher who did the most damage was the one who both built me up and tore me down. He told me I was a born writer, then later said I’d disappointed him and wasn’t living up to my promise — without really explaining why. It took me some years to get over that, and to see that his comments (good and bad) had much more to do with him than with my writing.

  14. Sometimes I think I’m done with being appalled. And then I hear a story like that. I really have to wonder why some people think they should be teachers. Yes, yes, of course it was about him, but should you have had to be the one to work to see that?
    Not long ago Jo was talking about putting her armor on to tackle revisions, and Slatts suggested a flannel lining cause of the cold. Maybe they should pass those out to every writer.
    Okay, I need to get my blood pressure back down and onto wishing a happy new year, with no one meddling with good souls.

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