None of my English teachers particularly liked me
I’ve always written.
I’m not sure I’ve always called myself a writer — granted I’ve also never been one to agonize over the label in a tug-of-war-game of Am I Or Am I Not (For Real Though?), instead assuming the identity of “writer” as breezily as I do things like my astrology sign and my gender; something I just am — but I do know for certain that for almost as long as I’ve understood how to put a string of sentences together to make a coherent statement, I have.
I want to share the story of what it looked like. I’m not sure it’s told the best way — and I’m sure I’ll figure out a better way to tell it going forward — but here’s the message as it came out when I wrote it.
In first or second grade, we were asked to write a short story. I wrote about a dog named Muffin. I don’t remember any of it, but I’m sure it was the likes of childhood Pulitzer for Fiction. (It was not.) It was, however, a real story — so much so that it got a little out of hand and couldn’t be “wrapped up”— Muffin, it turned out, had a great many adventures to go on, and she was still midway into them when the day came to turn it in. So I didn’t.
This was the first of many missed deadlines.
My teacher, no doubt agonizing over the suspense of What Will Happen To Muffin, asked me about it. I said I’d have it the next day. I said this more than once.
When I finally gave it to her, she looked down at my thick stack of papers covered front and back in my oversized child’s scrawl, and said to me, “if you needed more time, you should’ve just said so.”
It was then that I realized other students had not written that much.
It was also my first lesson in what I later learned were “soft deadlines.”
The teacher liked my story, though. And apparently it (probably in combination with my reading level and perhaps other factors not least of which were some rudimentary testing and undoubtedly my irrefutable charm, aloof and awkward child I was) qualified me for the “gifted and talented” program — which included “language arts.”
This was the real beginning of my writing education.
It was also the last of any teacher’s praise. Until my senior year of college.
We had the same “GT” language arts teacher all three years, and by the time eighth grade rolled around, she’d assign us essays on transcendentalism and utopia, then eye only me as she said,
“These essays are due Friday. That means I want to receive them on Friday.”
I adored her.
She tolerated me.
Freshman year, we stood in front of the class to recite Shakespeare and performed all kinds of other ridiculous antics for the sake of what was by then “English.” That spring, my teacher posted a list of students who would continue into Honors as sophomores. She intercepted me at the door, then stood waiting for the other students to leave.
My name, she made it clear to me, had been added only as an afterthought.
I thanked her — I mean, that’s the response, isn’t it? — and then promised her I’d try harder.
It’s difficult to say whether or not I did. Not because I objectively didn’t, but because I never understood how “trying” was measured in my work.
I guess I must have (or done the appropriate movements for seeming to, at least at some point), because my junior year teacher awarded me “most improved,” an honor I only grudgingly accepted, fully aware of its backhandedness. (Honestly — why was that award a thing?)
But by senior year, despite any “trying,” I never earned more than a 3 out of 5 on my essays — which we did at least weekly in preparation for the AP exam. When I met with my teacher for input, the overarching “feedback” I got was the impression of impatience and disdain. I think I squeaked by with a B. Minus.
And during all four years, after school and work, I spent endless free hours reading and filling dozens of notebooks with writing.
I studied business — finance and accounting; a double major — because (1) I was objectively good at it— much more the finance than accounting, but both well enough to satisfy my professors (and attract attention from the heads of the departments) — and (2) because it was a “reasonable” degree; something that would almost certainly get me a job and, after all, that’s the whole point of college, isn’t it?
By way of compromise, I wanted to pursue a minor in a subject I loved, regardless of whether or not I was “good” at it or it held any promise of a “career.” And by those two qualifiers the decision was obvious, because it was always going to be English.
I built my own minor, cobbling together any English class I wanted — an easy task when you’ve long been the outlier in them and have just enough willpower to strong-arm your way in regardless.
I took a grammar class that I loved so much I did extra credit assignments despite having a full 100% grade. The professor didn’t even know my name.
I took a 5-level course as a sophomore, where I was seriously in over my head and from which I remember nothing except: (1) the word “phenomenology” (though it was several years later that I actually understood it well enough to discuss it with any confidence, despite having written (and presumably received a passing grade for) an essay on it at the time) (2) the odd creature “axolotl,” courtesy of Julio Cortazar, (3) the long-haired senior kid in class who spoke on both subjects — and all the others — with downcast eyes but intoxicating composure, and (4) the way my professor stroked the leg of his dress pants when he was speaking or listening (which is to say: always) but, more memorably, the way he once did it to explain that a character in one story rubbed the arm of an armchair “for pleasure” (which is to say: with startling self-awareness.) Despite my overarching feelings of anxiety in the class and my claim that I absorbed next to nothing, my work there earned an “A.”
By senior year, I had satisfied my minor but still took a creative writing course, and at that point, I was well-accustomed to being the only business major in a class, listening to the more dedicated scholars of English impart their skill — and seriousness — in the subject.
At the end of my senior year, I was also the only student my professor referred to a writing program. “Your writing,” he scrawled on one of the last essays of my college career, “continues to impress me.”
I graduated and got a job. In finance.
I never stopped writing, really. I read — a lot — but I wrote even more. Each year, I read up to 50 books and wrote upwards of a million words. I wrote on trains and airplanes on my way to see clients. I wrote during weekend morning hours before my boyfriend woke up. I filled countless notebooks and then moved the work to blogs.
Where it sat unnoticed.
Not even my mom followed my blog. I should be fair, because my dad read it all the time, but apart from him and half a dozen drive-by readers, I was my own biggest fan.
I once asked my sister — one of my favorite people in the whole world, and hands down one of the kindest people I know — to read a post I’d recently written, and her response was, “the whole thing?” She is an otherwise avid reader.
And I knew I could safely leave my journals out in the open at home because when I once asked my live-in boyfriend if he read them, he looked at me baffled and said, “why would I want to?” I’m sure he meant well.
I submitted my writing to magazines and other publications a few times but never heard back. I toyed absentmindedly with the idea of published writing. But for the most part, I did what seemed to come “naturally,” which was work. And all of the other fixings of “normal life.”
I published my first story on Medium in April of 2017.
I’m not sure why, other than I had just ended a bad relationship and had a lot of thoughts on “love” — namely, real vs. toxic — and Medium seemed like as good of a place as any to put them.
That first story got about 1 reader, and I had a little over a dozen views total in the first few days:
I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. I just kept writing. Like I always had.
Ten months later, I have 26K followers.
What does this even mean for writing?
If you had asked me a year ago how my work should be measured, I’m not sure what I’d say. (And if you asked me when I was alone and writing into the abyss in my 20s, or anxious in college, or aloof and awarded back-handed acknowledgement in high school, or missing deadlines through elementary and middle school, I’m even less sure what I’d say.)
But I do know that if I had let teachers or publications or most readers or loved ones influence how I felt about my work and my relationship to it, I wouldn’t even have “uncertainty.” I would’ve hung up the towel during high school.
But if you were instead to ask me “do you like writing?” or, perhaps far most importantly, “do you like your writing?” I could answer with a definitive yes.
And that’s what matters.
You can’t listen to other people because “other people” is made up of too many individuals. And most of them — even those in a position to — don’t know what they’re talking about because what “works” is still weighed by everyone else. There are too many opinions, too varying in their degree of hot, cold, good, horrible, exceptional, barely-passing, love, hate, acclaim, disdain… it’s too much. You can’t base things like this off of that; you can’t spend your time striving to find the common denominator or line of best fit or average opinion of everyone around you — otherwise “average” (and unhappy) is exactly what you’ll get.
And when it comes to measuring your most important life work, the opinion that matters most is your own. It always holds the trump card over anyone else’s.