Lay Down Your Swords

I have written a number of times in this space about certain teachers and mentor-types who, during my formative high school days, told me in one way or another, “You are not a good writer and you do not understand what good writing is.” The message seemed clear: do something else. These remarks came often enough, by which I mean about once a year, that I felt as if there was a spot on my ego like a toe that had been banged so often it was never allowed to heal. Despite the criticism, I left high school as determined as ever to be a writer. My first semester in college I was required to take Composition 101. I liked the professor very much. He was funny, cheery, articulate, learned, and had none of the crushing disenchantment to which small town inner city high school teachers are susceptible.

One of our first assignments was to write a “descriptive essay.” By way of explanation the professor produced some yellowed pages and proceeded to read aloud from what he described as the best descriptive essay he had ever received. I have to admit I was editing this piece in my head as I was listening to it, thinking, “That’s a bit overdone.”

On the day the professor was to hand the papers back I came to class dressed all in white. This was how I was back then. He stood in front of the class and said how he had been teaching composition for fifteen years, and in fifteen years he had never received a descriptive piece as good as what he was about to share. He then read my essay aloud, every word of it, pointing out all the many examples “good writing.”

My writer’s ego went into diabetic shock. He was saying everything I had ever wanted a teacher or mentor to say about my work. And this wasn’t some rinky-dink, depressed, high school English teacher; this was a university professor with a pleasant southern accent and a mildly dirty sense of humor. Case closed, yes? Just as in the movies, all the past hurt is wiped clean in one triumphant victory.

Unfortunately, if you live by the sword of opinion, then you die by the sword of opinion. If I am a good writer one day because my professor says I am, then I am a bad writer the next because the college literary editor says I am not. I wish I could remember the exact day I stopped tethering my work’s value to someone else’s opinion as well as I can remember all that praise and criticism, but I cannot. I cannot, because there never was such a moment. I started out not caring, as do we all. That tethering had to be learned, a useless attempt to stave off the perceived loneliness born of asking yourself a question that only you can answer.

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