Welcome back dear readers,
Like almost every writer in the world, I’ve wanted to be a full-time novelist since I picked up a crayon and wrote my first picture book. But my goal was more specific. Enthralled with the stories of Dickens and the verse of Robert Louis Stevenson, I told my mother I wanted to write a “classic”. She kindly informed me that most authors don’t know they’ve written a classic until after they’re dead, but the goal remained. I wanted to write something powerful that would stand the test of time.
Most of us have a talent, and if you discovered that talent in elementary school, you know how little it takes to stand out from the pack. By the time I was in Grade Four, I was garnering attention for my writing ability, and in high school, I don’t know if the teachers bothered to read my work anymore. They just saw my name and gave me an A.
Enter Mr. Dolan.
Bill Dolan taught high school English, among other things. An outspoken man with a loud voice and a deep faith in God, he was beloved by some and equally hated and feared by others. He taught a class called Writing 12 that accepted only the best creative writing students in the school. You actually had to apply to get in, something unheard of in my little school. I enrolled in his class in Grade 11, excited about being in a class focused solely on writing. I’m not sure what my expectations were, but it’s safe to say I thought Mr. Dolan would be as enthralled with my work as the other teachers were.
This was not the case.
Mr. Dolan tore my work apart. He rolled his eyes at my adolescent poetry, mocked me when I tried to get too deep, and pointed out that some of my characters were, in fact, caricatures. Did I appreciate his attention? Not so much. The journals I was required to keep are initially filled with us arguing back and forth, with him finally writing “Well, it’s clear that you do not value my opinion….” But I did. I admired this intelligent teacher and was desperate to please him. Even when something I wrote garnered praise, he pushed me to be better. It drove me crazy!
When Mr. Dolan sneered at happy endings and how much he loathed Disney-style stories, I began writing horror fiction. It was the easiest way to avoid writing a “happily ever after”. Unlike Stephen King’s teachers, my instructor loved that stuff. He called me Stephanie Queen, and I floated on air. I was in love with King’s work at the time, and flattered by the comparison.
Before I graduated, Mr. Dolan took me aside and told me I had real promise as a writer, and that’s why he’d pushed me so hard. It wasn’t until years later that I realized his constant criticism had improved my writing more than a million As and “excellent work!”s ever could. Still, I’m not going to lie to you–personal growth, as a writer or otherwise, is not easy. You may resent the person who’s forcing you to grow, until you wake up and realize they had your best interests at heart all along.
When Susie Moloney asked to read the first draft of Dragonfly Summer at the retreat, I was unsure what to expect. I wasn’t convinced that she’d like it–at that point, I was finding a lot wrong with it. When she told me it was a wonderful book, I was gratified but also strangely disappointed. Where was the criticism? I wanted my book to be better, knew that it could be better. But when the criticism came, and it was very similar to what Mr. Dolan had told me all those years before–my protagonist is not fleshed out enough, she is not a real person yet–it was hard to hear. After all these years, I’m still making the same mistakes? It was disheartening.
The good news is, I know I can do better. I can fix what’s wrong with this book and make it something I’m proud of. It’s going to be a lot of work, and I’m not sure how I’ll be able to fit in all the writing I need to accomplish in the rest of this year. It will take some sacrifice–perhaps a lot of sacrifice–but I’ll get there.
Here’s to Mr. Dolan (who’s now principal of my old high school) and all the other teachers who risk their sanity pushing their students to achieve their best. Who refuse to let the gifted get lazy, which is all too easy in that environment. And to Susie Moloney and other successful writers who generously donate their own time to help those who are coming up behind them.
I still want to scare you. That hasn’t changed. And I won’t promise you a happy ending. What I will promise is to give you my very best, no matter what genre I’m writing in.
Who is your mentor, dear reader? How did they change the way you live or work?
I blogged about this recently.
But I also had a teacher “mentor” in Junior high who seemed to know about me and writing even though I NEVER talked about writing and certainly my classmates didn’t know about that side of me. But he used to look at the books I had taken out of the library and say things like, “Why are you reading this. I would think you could be writing this.” And I wondered if he’d stolen my diary or something.
Mentors are hard to find but you can find them in strange places. Sometimes the least likely person can have great insight. The guy (not my mentor but the old boyfriend) I talk about in the blog link, for instance isn’t a writer, he is an IT guy but obviously an astute reader. Sometimes non-writers can be the most helpful because they are not caught up in jargon and trendy technique.
I find the same – that my most helpful critics have been non-writers with an eye for what makes a good story. Writers are often too concerned with how *they* would write something, which can destroy a person’s own voice. That’s why I caution writers against sharing their first drafts or worse–drafts in progress–with critique groups.
Great topic. My four greatest mentors were the four who pushed me the hardest and at times I was resentful (the record was 1 full month of resentment – pretty much every waking hour – until I realized I hadn’t been betrayed but was being helped). I hated both correction and embarrassment but now I am able to take both in stride for the most part. Usually I was not singled out unless I had not given it my all. So to Clifford, Phil, King and Julin thanks for being there and kicking my butt (sometimes literally) when I needed it.
I do prefer showing my stuff first and formost to readers rather than writers. Although usually the next words out of their mouths after their insightful feedback and “this is really good” are “You should try sending this to Reader’s Digest, or something.”
I’ve had that a couple times. That always makes me chuckle and then I smile and say, “Thanks.”
@ Vin – thanks. Glad to know someone else has been in the same position. I take it those are kungfu mentors? Being held accountable is tough, but aren’t we lucky to have the mentors we do? It’s hard to find one great mentor in a lifetime, let alone several.
@ Kim – that’s a great idea. You should send your blog comments to Reader’s Digest! 🙂