I thought I was a good writer. All through school and college, I got A’s in English and Creative Writing and the dozens of literature classes that filled my schedule. My friends all said I was a good writer. People I didn’t know made positive comments about my stories, and I even got a few of them published in local and state journals.
And then, in the early nineties, I entered the West Virginia Writers Annual Competition for Novels. I won second place, which came with a nice certificate and a check for $150. And it came with a bonus—Mr. D, the judge of the event that year, critiqued the winning entries. Excited, I jumped to the back page to see his overview comments. He said, “You write well—for a normal person. The problem is, you don’t want to be a normal person. You want to be a writer. And you have a lot to learn before you can be a writer.”
Say what? Even though tears had already started stinging my eyes, I had to re-read his comment to make sure I hadn’t misread. And that was exactly what he’d said. Your writing sucks.
It was late—probably eleven p.m.—the awards program had followed a too-long banquet with a mouthy keynote speaker—and I had to drive home, about fifty minutes away. “You have a lot to learn before you can be a writer” hit me at every milepost, at every traffic light, at every pothole. The words burned not only my eyes, but my heart. I would never write again. Never. I was an imposter, a no-good normal person who could never cross the realm to live in the world of real writers.
The girls were already in bed when I got home, but my husband was waiting up. He met me with, “What’s wrong?” I tearfully showed him the indictment. You have a lot to learn before you can be a writer.
Butch just shrugged. “What don’t you write him and ask him what he means by that?” He kissed me and went to bed.
Do what? There was no question what he meant. You are not a writer.
By Monday, I had gone through my manuscript. There were many places where he’d made comments such as, “Stop right here. Go get a dictionary and look up the word ‘melodrama.’ That’s what this is. Melodrama. And it doesn’t make the reader feel anything—except the need to vomit” or “What makes you think putting an exclamation mark here makes your story more exciting? If your reader can’t feel the urgency by the words you’ve written, you’re not going to make them feel it by using a whole row of exclamation marks.” But there were other places where he wrote things like, “Now this is fine writing.” Or “This is the way to write it! Good job!”
On Tuesday, I typed a letter out to Mr. D. I thanked him for the critique of my manuscript, and I asked him if he’d be willing to look at a rewrite of the scene he’d chastised as being a melodramatic mess. Surprisingly, a week or so later, I received a letter back (no email back then). He graciously invited me to send him the scene. And a mentorship was born.
For the next two years, I sent scene after scene to Mr. D, and he returned them promptly with comments and encouragements. He gave me reading assignments. He suggested craft books. I coveted every word he said, and I worked hard to understand concepts I’d never given a lot of thought to before. Narrative Voice. Point of View. Denouement. But, more than anything, I learned how to control character emotion. I learned how to make the reader supply the emotion instead of exhausting it all with melodrama. I learned how to write.
I left the sphere of normal people (which, to be truthful, I never quite fit in anyway) and entered the world of writers. For, you see, you’re not born with the title writer. It isn’t like eye color or skin tone or ancestry. It isn’t a gift. It’s something you learn, something you earn.
Do you want to be a writer? We’d love to be your bridge between the world of normal people and the world of writers. All you have to do is shoot us an email at IFWeditors@gmail.com. Chat soon!