Decades ago I took a university writing class with a respected and much lauded professor who rattled off a list of rules all good writers must absorb as the writer’s bible, and then expounded about why none of us undergrads would meet his requirements even if we adhered to his rules. My penned notes on his first lecture filled many lined pages with not a single doodle enhancing the margins, my go-to I’m bored activity. The papers were creased with the sweat of my hands as I’d written, the ink smudged by the nervous energy of trying to listen attentively, to commit every significant comment to the notebook. For future reference, for guidance in my efforts to become a writer. His final words, actually his very first words, were that he’d like to see far fewer faces at the next lecture because we were not the students he wanted to teach. Without reading a single sentence from any of us, he declared we were dull, uninspired, unworthy to write.
At the end of his first class, I walked out with my head reeling, a sense of nausea brought on by the knowledge that the previous four years of college were a total waste of time. As he’d accused, though he’d addressed the entire room of forty or so upper level students, I was unqualified to ever attempt to write a story, so ignorant that I couldn’t function within the narrow corridor of competence as he’d described. I couldn’t live by his rules because I was already a total failure. He spoke to all of us but I took it personally. He spoke to me.
The dizzying buzz in my brain assured me I was as incompetent as he’d expected. His initial evaluation after calling my name from the attendance record confirmed his suspicion that I would never live up to anyone’s expectations of becoming a successful writer – or a successful anything. Perhaps dumpster diving might suit me. At least then I had the potential of dredging up something useful from the bottom of the bin, something practical for the life of a loser. That’s what he expected of all of us, of me. Dumpster divers, nothing more.
It was that class, so late in my long years of attending college, and rejection letters (I’d been warned I should expect them for the few stories I’d submitted for publication consideration, rejection being the norm for new writers) that convinced me I didn’t have the right stuff. That I didn’t have the write stuff to be a writer. With only this final semester of college before I could graduate, my credits hovering on the maybe-not-enough-units line, and a bank account that couldn’t support one more semester to make up a failed attempt, I dropped his class. I couldn’t risk a failing grade. I couldn’t risk trying to pass a class the professor had already warned I wouldn’t. After frantic rearrangement of department allocations for a few of my classes, I did manage to graduate “on time,” but my wobbly confidence fell over the cliff. Post college I did little to pursue writing as a career but eventually constructed a measure of success in another field.
How many of us who wanted to become someone – a ballerina, a rocket scientist, an inventor, an ambassador on behalf of our country – found ourselves waylaid by the doubt of stepping outside the hallowed halls of university and encountering the real world of looming bills, demanding employers, and sewers to be cleaned? Detoured by a threatening professor? I wasn’t the first, the only, the last. It took me decades to understand that the famous professor’s clever manipulation of an apprehensive young woman produced exactly what he wanted me to become: someone whose papers he didn’t have to read or grade. I was what he’d nurtured: a drop out and a failure. I was also what I’d nurtured: a fool cowering at the bottom of a dumpster.
But what the famous professor didn’t count on was that I would scrabble from the dumpster and gather myself as a person of merit. He didn’t consider I’d have something more than his rigid rules to measure success. I’m passionate about what I do, what I write. Passion carried me through a whole crap load of insecurity. I survived a latent start to surface from the dregs of the bin to make myself a person out of the aura of the insecure student. I’d never been a brilliant prodigy but I’ve always been resilient. And I’d always been passionate about who I was, what I might become.
Fifteen years ago I resurrected my desire to write. I wrote with frenzy, stimulated by current needs to change who I was and dormant longing to do what I felt I should have done with my life. Late at night the computer glowed and hummed, helping me craft and hoard my novels. When I wasn’t near the boxy beast, I thought writing and kept penned notes about what to revise, what to write next. The excitement of my childhood, of my early college years when I envisioned becoming the next great Dickens or Virginia Woolf invigorated me. Like most of us I’m encumbered by practical needs and responsibilities, all the everyday necessities that get in the way of a creative life, but nothing can stop me writing now.
I finally learned what a wiser student would have learned in that ominous writing class: an indifferent teacher cannot make me a bad writer. Only I can do that. Likewise, only I can make myself a good writer. Rules may assist or impede, but if I write with passion, ain’t nothing gonna get in my way, baby. Put that in your cup and stir it up, drink it down, and get outta my way. I am a writer. That took a very long breath and a voice from deep within my psyche, but there, I’ve said it: I am a writer.
And here’s the coup de grace: I can no longer remember the name of that famous college professor.
Dumpster photo courtesy of Edward, wikimedia.org