I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. It might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit—John Steinbeck
I spent my blog post last week advising everyone not to pay too much attention to writing advice. I guess it would stand to reason if this week, when we pass along advice from teachers and mentors that has meant something to us, I didn’t have a whole lot to say.
Luckily, I like to blab. I can pretty much always come up with something to say.
The first person I can remember having an influence on my writing was my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Johnston. She was adored by all of us, affectionately called Mrs. J. The time we spent on creative writing in her classroom was the first I remember of actually revising things I had written. I can’t quote her—I no longer remember anything specific she said, but she pushed us not to settle for our first drafts, to consider every word carefully.
I have a funny memory from that time of sitting in the school’s little computer lab with the rest of my class, typing up articles we’d written to put together a newspaper. This was before Windows was widespread (yes, I am that old), and we were all diligently typing from our handwritten final drafts, our words crawling in glowing green against the black screens. Mrs. J circled the room, keeping an eye on us, and when she passed my station she asked me why I hadn’t typed in exactly what was on my paper. I told her I just thought the new word I had chosen would be better. She actually stopped the class for a second to point out what I’d done. At first I thought I must be in trouble. (I was often in trouble at school.)
But I was not in trouble. “You see,” she told them. “You never stop editing.”
Did I feel like a real writer when she said that? I don’t remember. But I’ve always thought it must have been an important moment, because I never forgot it.
I also had a poetry teacher when I was seventeen who said a number of interesting things. Most of them had to do with images and metaphor, and why some work while others don’t. I have a vivid memory of him standing in front of the class and giving us a metaphor: “I dive into the pool of your eye,” he said. “It doesn’t work. Why?” When no one answered, he held his palm up flat as a platform, and used two fingers to represent a tiny man jumping off it. “Because when you read it, you actually picture a big eye, and this little guy diving into it.”
This was food for thought. Not only did we need to recognize when the words were working, we also had to understand why they failed when they did. It’s the first time I can remember actually thinking about the mechanics of writing, instead of just doing everything by instinct.
I’ll be honest—I still do most things by instinct. But reading a lot of poetry did develop my ear for the sounds and the rhythm of words. I’ve always been musical—I spent four years when I was a teenager classically training my voice at the McGill Royal Conservatory in Montreal, so maybe I was just born with that ear. But I’m also pretty sure it’s something we can develop, and it’s invaluable to good writing.
I started this post with a quote from John Steinbeck, and I have to close with him as well, something he wrote in a letter that I came across in the introduction to my edition of The Grapes of Wrath. For some reason, it’s my favorite writerly quote of all time. I loved it so much I wrote it down on a scrap of paper, which is no doubt lost somewhere right now in my desk:
“For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time.”
I remember being astonished to read that from one of America’s greatest writers. If even if this man could doubt his abilities, maybe there was hope for me, too.
And it seems to me that is what writing is—pushing through doubt in order to make the best thing you can. We all doubt ourselves. We all have days when every word coming out of us feels stiff and awful and joyless. But we have to push against that. Talent is great, but talent only gets you so far, and it only flourishes if you continue to nurture it. Even on days when it feels like it has betrayed you. Even on days when it feels like it has left you altogether.
I’ll always be grateful to Mr. Steinbeck for writing those words, and I’ll always feel lucky that I happened to come across them. They taught me that the key to success is not in my ability. It lies only in my willingness to keep pushing.