Today I began a new book because I finished another book that made me want to read this one. I finished Pat Schneider’s How the Light Gets In and now I wanted to read her book about how she teaches writing. The book is Writing Alone and with Others.
I want to read this book because in the other book, her most recent one, she mentions Malawi. She says several times that her writing workshops have been given in many places and to many kinds of people and have been successful, even in Malawi villages. I think of Congo. I wonder if I could teach writing in Congo. To women who can barely read. I am just curious enough about this to buy the book and begin reading immediately, believing I must explore this before I go to Congo again. This happens to me often. Books present themselves to be read, interrupting what you are doing, interrupting your plans, because, it turns out, they will change whatever it was you were doing, the thing that was interrupted.
As I begin Writing Alone and with Others I quickly see that it will direct me to tend first my own writing. This is what is being interrupted, the thing that needed to be interrupted is the book I am working on. I have been getting bored with the writing and realizing that something is not right, that I will have to go deeper. I don’t know what to do about that right now but one of the exercises at the end of the first chapter of Writing Alone and with Others is about listening to and addressing all the critics. The assumption is that critics, outer and then inner, are the ones who block the writing, who create bad writing experiences that cripple us as writers and they start in childhood and most often in school.
But let me say this: no one asked me to write anything in elementary school except answers. I didn’t write. I wrote down. I answered. And of course I spelled and practiced handwriting. But I did not create anything in writing. Ever.
I read hundreds of books. Hundreds. But no one suggested that maybe one day I might write books. I loved nursery rhymes but never tried to make rhymes myself. No one told me it was possible. No one gave me permission to try. I made up stories and told them to my little brother while we were shelling peas. They were about pea families and their adventures and the perils they overcame in the digestive tracts of people or the drain and then the ditch or the grass or the garden, among the grasshoppers. My mother overheard and even praised these stories but never suggested that I write them down. I played for hours with invented hollyhock princesses, took them to balls and parties, but never wrote down words from my imagination. Being a writer was not a profession that was ever, ever mentioned to me when I was a child. Teacher, nurse, mother, fireman, farmer, preacher, secretary. I never knew anyone who wrote, either for fun or for a living. If I did, they kept quiet about it. If I did, they were not like me. Writing was not something my people did. My people were farmers and housewives and factory workers, humble Mennonites. They did not aspire to do anything except please God, which meant keeping in one’s place.
I tried a few times to keep a diary but I didn’t know what to put in it. Did someone give me a diary? A friend? None of my grade school friends kept diaries, as far as I know.
My handwriting was terrible, according to my teachers. I recognized this. The only C’s I got were in Writing, which was handwriting. I got C’s because I was too impatient to form my letters properly, to round my cursive into perfect o’s and a’s. Why was I impatient? Because writing in that way bored me? or because I had things to write that wanted to come onto the page faster than the letters could be formed?
Someone should have noticed. Someone should have paid attention. Someone should have taught me, for pity’s sake. I taught myself everything else those first six years of school. From the books. Before the teachers ever got there.
Perhaps it was a mercy. Because I never wrote, I never had any bad childhood experiences with writing. After the desert of junior high I got to the oasis of high school, where the teachers were not only kind (all my teachers were that) but also intelligent and well-educated. And somehow, without ever having written, I began writing as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Not a lot, but some, when it was assigned. Good essays on essay tests. Book reports (did I never do those in grade school? I don’t think so. Maybe a paragraph to prove I had read the book?). Tiny little compositions in English. Letters. And some actual college-style papers in my later classes. I remember the thrill of being assigned to write a parody of Chaucer. All of my writing got high praise from my kind, intelligent, well-educated teachers. I was the valedictorian of my Christian high school class of 60. And I went to college wanting to major in English, mostly because I wanted to devour as many books as I could but also because I thought I might someday LEARN TO WRITE.
I thought, naturally, that writing was a lofty, difficult skill that required years of training and learning and discipline. Oh, and talent. You had to have unusual talent. I thought I had maybe a little talent. My high school teachers had led me to believe this. I wanted to explore the possibility that I had a little talent and, if I did, I might be willing to invest whatever it took to become a lofty writer.
Therefore, when I was a lowly freshman, the class that I looked forward to most was English Composition 101. An actual class in writing! My first ever! I was going to start to learn! I was 17.
The professor was someone I knew by reputation. I had read things she had written. Elizabeth Showalter had edited Words of Cheer, the Sunday School paper we got every week in our church mailbox. It had stories and poems and drawings and puzzles. I read Words of Cheer but I was not impressed with it, even as a young child. It was enough to keep me somewhat entertained during a long church service, but a real book would have been better. I wished I could take Nancy Drew or a Grace Livingston Hill book to church. I had read enough to know what made a good story. The Words of Cheer stories were too obvious. They had moral lessons poking you in the eye. They were stories about good little girls and boys and bad little girls and boys and how Jesus wants you to behave. I wasn’t critical of them. They just bored me.
So here was my first writing professor. Elizabeth Showalter, a plump lady who wore longish flowered dresses and her white hair pulled back in a bun but not tight, fluffed out at the sides and top like a good Mennonite lady. She looked like a Sunday School teacher rather than a college professor. But she was smart, too. She seemed to know her stuff, at least she spoke with authority, and I tried to set aside my prejudice. My disappointment. I had had some good teachers in high school. Mr. Gross, a true intellectual. His Swiss wife, who taught me French in private lessons. Mr. Miller, a dour, soft-spoken man. We tried to make him laugh (succeeding now and then) and match him up with Miss Wyse (never succeeded). But Miss Showalter? Words of Cheer? In college?
Perhaps I already felt like Miss Showalter was beneath me and perhaps I did not put as much effort into that first composition as I should have. Perhaps I didn’t listen carefully enough to her instructions. The first composition I wrote for her came back marked with a C.
This was not possible! There must be some mistake. Someone whose writing was not that good had judged my writing, which everyone praised, and found it wanting. Average. Inadequate. I went to see her and I am embarrassed to this day to say that I wept. I don’t remember what I wrote and I don’t remember why I thought the grade was wrong but I do remember what she told me. “You are used to being at the top of your class,” she said. “But you are in college now. Everybody is smart. C is average. Get used to being average.”
I don’t know if she told me specifically what was wrong with the composition or if I even asked. I don’t remember anything about the class after that. I must have written other compositions but I don’t remember what grade I got on any other composition or on the class itself but it was certainly better than a C because a few years later I graduated Magna with a near 4.0. The only lesson I really learned from my first writing class ever was, “Get used to being average.”
Being average was exactly what I did not want to get used to. I wanted to be excellent. Writers had to be excellent, I knew that much. They had to be more excellent than Miss Showalter. And if I couldn’t be excellent I might as well not try.
The message was another form of what I heard many times from my parents, especially my father. “Net so schmayat.” Don’t be too smart. Don’t get ahead of your kind. Don’t get a big head. Being a writer was getting way ahead of my kind. Being a writer required being really smart. I was both too smart for my kind and not smart enough to do what I was called to do. Who was I to think I could be a writer?
And so now to Miss Showalter I say what it would not have occurred to me to say then: Who were you, a mediocre writer of children’s Sunday School material, to give a smart 17 year old a C, just to take her down a notch?
I lost whatever respect I had for Elizabeth Showalter in that moment. My literary snob boyfriend and I made fun of her. But I carried her lesson with me through college–although I took a creative writing class and wrote short stories that made it into the literary journal and although I wrote a regular column for the college newspaper, and although I aced all my term papers and essay exams–and then through graduate school as I went for a Master of Arts in Teaching because I thought teaching was all I could do though I didn’t really want to teach, and then on, well, all of my life, as I became a teacher and an international adventurer and mother and, finally, an editor, and then, tentatively, fearfully, a doubt-laden writer. You are not quite smart enough to do what you are called to do and so how can it be your calling? How can it be your calling to be a mediocre writer? And why put effort into it if that is all you are going to be?
These messages morphed into another self-criticism after I finally realized that I was, actually, a writer: why are you not living up to your abilities? Or, why has it taken you this long? It is the same message. Deep down I fear, fear, fear that my abilities are only average and I am afraid to invest in a talent that is only average. And so writing continues to loom as a holy, wholly unobtainable grail, receding into the distance of my life. Beyond it. I will die before I ever truly live into this calling. If I continue to doubt and fear, that is.
Here is the hope. As a child I didn’t know that writing was possible. And then I entered high school and suddenly, there it was. I can live for 69 years under the shadow of self doubt but now, in my 70th year, I will step into the sun.