“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.” ~ Flannery O’Connor
From the time I was twenty until I was forty-six, I barely wrote a word of fiction.
God, what a waste.
A devastating college workshop experience left me convinced I had nothing to say and didn’t know how to say it anyway. On that dark February evening, I sat in stunned silence at a conference table as a handful of seniors mocked my story mercilessly. No one else spoke up (although one student told me later, “I didn’t think it was that bad.”). The professor did nothing to stop the train of ridicule, nor did he ever say anything to suggest that my writing wasn’t hopeless. He gave me an A in the class, but I’ve never believed it.
Defeated, I moved on to other things. I did my student teaching the next semester, choosing to work with the drama club instead of the school paper. I came back to campus for my final semester, and I spent the summer after graduation trying to find a teaching job—no small task in the summer of 1981, when so many jobs were still occupied by people who’d taken them to avoid being drafted in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Eventually, I found a regular full-time teaching job at a school where all teachers who might want tenure had to coach an extracurricular activity. Again, I found myself working with a drama club. The difference was that these kids liked to write their own scripts, which meant I worked with them on dramatizing existing stories, obliviously skipping along the line between fan fiction and plagiarism. (Luckily, it never occurred to anybody that we were kicking the crap out of copyright laws.)
Those plays were the closest I came to writing fiction during that entire two and a half decades.
It wasn’t that the notion never occurred to me. I even taught a few terms of creative writing in adult education after I stopped teaching high school. How I stood in front of my students week after week, encouraging them to write while never putting pen to paper myself, is beyond me now. Maybe I was subscribing unconsciously to the bullshit maxim that those who can’t do, teach.
I developed my workarounds, ways of still writing without revealing anything of myself. In one graduate workshop on creativity, I wrote essays that would probably now be called creative nonfiction. During a long-term temp job in the communications department of a large corporation, my boss offered me opportunities to write blurbs for employee newsletters. When I found my first real post-teaching job, I assisted my boss in researching and writing a quality control manual.
But writing stories . . . um, no.
I was busy enough not to think about it. I worked two jobs, studied voice, and had a fairly active social life. Shortly after I changed to a new day job and was thus able to quit the night job, a married friend introduced me to her ex-boyfriend. We fell madly in love, and for the next year and a half, nearly all my weekends were occupied with him coming up from New York or me going down there. In addition, I began taking paralegal courses that met one or two nights each week. I was busy, busy, busy, and I never thought about creative writing.
By the time this boyfriend and I broke up, I was edging toward my late twenties. Nearly all my friends were married or in serious relationships. I was still taking paralegal classes, but I was far more interested in meeting Mr. Right than in dipping a toe back into the writing pool. Not that I couldn’t have done both: once my weekends were no longer occupied with a boyfriend-in-residence, I spent hours taking long walks, going to movies, having dinner or drinks with new guys, and hanging out with friends. My spare time was so abundant that I routinely spent the thirty-minute drive home from church each week trying to figure out how I was going to fill up a whole empty Sunday afternoon.
Still, it never occurred to me to write.
Ten years later, when I was in my late thirties, I tried writing an actual short story. By this time, I was earning a living writing other lawyers’ briefs. The story wasn’t very good, but considering how long it had been since I’d exercised my writing muscles, it didn’t totally suck, either. A few days later, I hesitantly mentioned the story to my then-current boyfriend, but when he showed little interest in discussing it and didn’t ask to read it, I retreated into my no-writing shell.
I was forty-six the next time I tried to write fiction. I’d found a fansite with a library of exactly the kind of stories I wrote in high school, back before anybody had coined the term “fan fiction.” Some of the stories were surprisingly good, enough to remind me how much I’d loved writing those stories. Tentatively, I began again—and something clicked. For the next three months, I wrote with abandon. Encouraged by an excellent writer on the fansite, I posted a story late one night. Then, I went to bed and dreamed that despite the site owner’s strict rule against negative comments, everyone who read it posted reviews saying, “You suck!”
To my amazement, people loved my story. Almost overnight, I became a minor sensation on the site. Buoyed by readers’ praise, I wrote constantly; in my first year, I posted a new story every other week, and readers met each with glowing comments.
It was almost as if the students in that long-ago college workshop were wrong, and I really did know how to write.
The people who loved my fanfic stories certainly seemed to think so, and some of them were themselves fine writers. The one who originally encouraged me was an English teacher who had pursued an MFA in creative writing. She and I became good friends, beta reading for each other and even collaborating on a few stories. As my confidence grew, I began to experiment with structure, plot, language, characterization, and all the other tools a writer uses.
In the past several years as I’ve branched out into original fiction, I’m always struck by the number of fresh young writers who are producing books in their twenties and thirties. I can’t help wondering how my writing life might have been different if I’d spent less time in the 1980s taking long walks around downtown Stamford and more time putting words on paper. What might have happened if I’d devoted less effort to baking bread and more effort to studying craft? What if I’d taken creative writing workshops instead of paralegal courses?
There’s no way to know, of course. It might still have taken until I was in my fifties before I published my first story. Maybe it really took all those years for me to begin to find my voice. Maybe I needed that much life experience to have something to say. Maybe my work in college really was as bad as my mocking classmates claimed. Or maybe they were cruel idiots who didn’t know what the fuck they were talking about, and I just needed to keep writing.
My biggest regret now is all the time I lost because of some careless comments. Twenty-six years. More than half my adulthood wasted, at least in terms of writing. Sure, I did things of value—went to law school, earned a living, had relationships, made a home, built a life—but there was always a hole, a sense of something missing, something that could have been. A writing-shaped vacuum, as it were. All those years, I could have been practicing and learning and developing as a writer. Instead, I allowed some stupid kids who knew no more than I convince me that I couldn’t.
Don’t make my mistake.
From my lofty vantage point on the verge of my sixty-second birthday, let me say this as loudly and clearly as I can:
If you want to write, write.
(Or draw or paint or dance or do whatever else is your passion.) Screw the likes of Flannery O’Connor and my college classmates. Don’t let anybody stifle you.
I’m not saying it’ll be easy. Writing is work, just like anything of value, but it’s so worth doing. Publishing is optional; do it if you like, don’t if you’d rather not. Finding your audience will likely take effort, but if you have the urge to tell a story, keep searching for someone to tell it to. Make up worlds and characters and events. Experiment with form and language, imagery and structure. Immerse yourself in a wonderful, juicy creative life.
Whatever you do, don’t waste your time worrying about whether you’re good enough. There’s always somebody who will tell you you’re not. If they’ll say it about Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare, they’ll say it about you. Leave them to their opinions and keep writing anyway. Do the work. Revel in it. Tomorrow is not guaranteed, and the critics are rarely worth paying attention to.
Now get the hell off the internet and go write something.