Killer Year–The Class of 2007

Anger is More Useful Than Despair
June 26, 2006, 4:00 am
Filed under: Jason Pinter, Killer Year Founders,

A few years ago, I went to my first writers conference. It was before I started working in publishing, while I was putting together the scraps of my first novel (that bears suspicious resemblance to OPAL MEHTA, but that's another story). I decided that if I was going to be serious about writing, it would benefit me to be around other writers, both professional and aspiring. In all fairness, a good deal of the other participants had much more experience than me, publishing work in various literary journals and magazines. One girl even had–sweet Zeus's beard!–a literary agent!

I applied to be in the novel writing class, but by the time I registered it was full. So I ended up in the short story section. I'd written a few short pieces, mainly for classes in college, and they were pretty well received by my college peers who loved reading my stories about "old women who smelled like feet." My short stories weren't what you'd typically expect when reading short stories. They were mainly comedic shorts, pretty slapsticky, and the one I submitted to be critiqued was about a college student on the worst family road trip of all time.

It was pretty funny. But it wasn't very good.

The teacher for the class was a very-well respected author and member of the high-up literati. An older man with a Colonel Sanders beard, let's call him 'CB.' (and yes, the letters 'CB' are his real initials. Let the speculation begin) I didn't expect much applause when it came my time to be critiqued, knowing the story had its issues (one of them being that it didn't really have–what do you call it–an ending). So when it was my time, I expected the worst. And I got it. And then some.

CB tore me and my story apart. His first words were, "When I finished reading this, my first thoughts were it wasn't a short story." I don't think CB liked me very much. Maybe it was my age at the time (22), maybe it was the fact that my story didn't involve lonely misanthropes gazing longingly into the sun, but he basically acted like I was the only dumb kid in a class full of prodigies. And maybe he was right, and I just didn't realize it. But I swallowed my pride and listened to the critique. Many of his points were valid, and I probably became a better writer for it.

When the conference ended, all the participants and authors got together for a farewell banquet. I'd bought books by all the authors, including CB's most recent work. Before I left, I asked CB to sign my copy of his book. He smiled, and took a pen from his jacket. I couldn't wait to see what this intelligent man of letters would write to me, what erudite words of widsom he would offer for a young man looking for literary guidance. He scribbled in the book, handed it back to me, and I opened the cover to see what he'd written. And there, in neat script, were five words:

To Jason: Keep on Truckin'

I stared at it in disbelief. "Keep on Truckin?"

I was outraged. It was obvious CB was completely blowing me off. He might as well have written, "Don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out." It was clear CB didn't think I had much to offer the literary profession, and  because of that didn't have to offer me much in turn. I left the banquet steaming mad. Mad at CB for his mocking scribbles. Mad at myself for not writing a good enough story to merit something better. And swearing to not stand for what I felt was one of the most insulting moments of my life.

So I remebered that moment every time I sat down to write. My anger fueled my desire to hone my craft. I wanted the day to come where I could show CB my published work. Maybe sign a copy for him with the words, "I Done Trucked."

So anyway, I want to thank CB, wherever he is, for his words of wisdom. They ended up motivating me more than any other platitudes I could have imagined. I don't think that's quite what CB had in mind, but it doesn't matter. 

Thanks, man. Don't let that truck grill hit you in the ass.

And to everyone else, I think there's a lesson here. If somebody tells you that you aren't good enough for something, that you don't fit the mold, than you aren't worth their time, don't despair. Don't turn the emotion inward. Turn it outward. Prove them wrong. Harness the despair and turn it into anger. Both you and your work will be better for it.

Jason Pinter

author of THE MARK

Coming July, 2007 from MIRA books


20 Comments so far
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James Lee Burke once said words to the effect, “I finally reached a point where I no longer heard the denigration or the applause.”

I think he offered the thought as both advice and a caution–that one can’t ignore the slings and arrows without also dismissing the adulation.

I try (and often fail) to live by that standard.

Comment by Philip Hawley

Before I sold my first screenplay, it was pointed out to me by several people that it’s practically impossible to sell a screenplay.

Before I became a member of the WGA, I was told that there were only a few members (a couple thousand) and the chances of becoming one were pretty slim.

After I became a member of the WGA, the WGA ITSELF told me in a nice “congratulations!” letter that the chances of me ever working in Hollywood again were practically nonexistent.

Before selling my first novel to St. Martin’s, people told me that it’s extremely difficult to sell fiction these days — especially cross-genre fiction.

Naysayers abound in this world. And, frankly, they’re usually right. They have the statistics to prove it.

But to those of us who are determined to make it, their words fuel the engine rather than stall the flight.

Comment by Robert Gregory Browne

I’ve come to believe that odds only matter as historical data. If the odds are a million to one, you have no proof that you aren’t going to *be* that one, so go for it.

Comment by toni mcgee causey

I had a similar experience with a writing teacher when I was 20. He hated everything I wrote, and did his best to discourage me from further writing…but here I am 17 years later, working on an MFA in popular fiction and plugging away at a mystery novel, and being taken seriously by my mentors and peers. If you want something badly enough, you keep working at it. Your critics can drive you to improve your craft, but you can’t let them drive you away from it.

Comment by Patrick Shawn Bagley

I had one of these teachers too. In my case, it was a writer-in-residence, a fellow of prodigious literary reputation, who came to my university for two weeks back in the spring of 1983. One of the highlights of his appearance for the writing students was one-on-one critique of one of our stories.

I submitted this truly awful 10-page piece apocalyptic piece about a guy from an isolated military base sent out alone to kill a spy. For reasons too constipated to go into, his only weapon was a bowie knife. The point of the story was about how this guy had never killed anyone, but through a series of flashbacks comes to terms with what he has to do and the story ends with him ready to face his enemy at last.

What can I say, I was in my post-apocalyptic guy goes it alone phase.

So this literary light gives the story a once over, rips it and me multiple new rectums, leaving me ready to skulk out of there and go hide in a bomb shelter. But he’s not done. Because for him, the story, as bad as it was, also ended too soon.

So then I get a five-minute explication of “what happens next,” the search, the discovery, the hunt. He goes into pretty vivid detail, and I’m starting to think he’s going to write the story himself.

Then he gets the fight itself, the stabbing with the knife. The writers goes all bug-eyed and says, “And…hat…what…what…does the wound look like?” I’ll never forget it, the breathless staccato. “It…it…it…looks like…a vagina!”

I said, “Uh,” and managed to flee right after that. But in my mind I was thinking, “What the hell are you talking about? It does not look like a vagina!”

That has become shorthand for absurdity for me over the years. “It…it…it…looks like…a vagina!” Makes me laugh inside (I usually don’t say it out loud) and reminds me that if the great can be ridiculous, maybe the ridiculous can someday be great. It’s kept me plugging.

Comment by Bill Cameron

It’s weird how sometimes a little negativity or adversity pushes us to the place we want to go. The desire to prove the other person wrong is a strong one. But sometimes without these people, we would never reach a little bit higher, and would be content with the level we were on. It’s whether we choose to see the wall they put up as an opportunity or as an end point that matters most.

Great story, Jason.

Comment by Brett Battles

This was exactly the post I needed to read today. Thank you Jason, a hundred thousand times over.

Comment by Sandra Ruttan

When people tell me I can’t do something, I tend to work that much harder to accomplish it.

I think there are two types of people–those who when you say, “You can’t”, don’t try; those who when you say, “You can’t” say right back: “Watch me.”

Comment by Allison Brennan

I’ve had 4 professors like this. It’s astounding that I’m writing at all; their combined vitriol that my work just plain sucked kept me out of the game for nearly 15 years. I was told, flat out, you’ll never be published. I switched careers entirely based on that — I went into politics instad of getting my MFA. Of course, I had a prof on that side of the fence who told me I’d never get in to grad school — I sent her an invitation to my MA graduation and wrote YOU WERE WRONG on the back.

Allison’s point is right on, I think that through all those years, the thought in the back of my mind was “I can’t? Watch me.”

Thanks for opening the door on this, Jason. Looks like we’ve all had some sort of jerk in our lives who’s told us we weren’t good enough.

And I admit to doing a little bit on the na-na dance when I got word that I’d beaten everyone’s dismal odds — never’s a pretty commanding period of time.

Comment by JT Ellison

Very good post.

I think too often people consider negative or critical feedback to be more honest than positive feedback.

But just as some positive feedback is from people trying to be nice, some negative comes from people just trying to be cruel.

And as they say, the best way to silence the critics is to succeed.

Comment by Kevin Einarson

There’s nothing wrong with constructive criticism. A well thought-out critique is essential. I feel cheated if I get through an entire workshop without someone in the group pointing out some part of my manuscript that needs repair. I’m there for the critiquing, not to get my ego stroked.

BUT you have to be diplomatic in your criticisms and, instead of simply trashing the piece, offer some advice on how to fix the problems and always be sure to point out what IS working first. Too many people get off on running others down…and very often those same people lack the talent to back up their own arrogance.

Comment by Patrick Shawn Bagley

OMG. My husband (Kevin Einarson) is so smart.

Learn something new every day.

Comment by Sandra Ruttan

At a writer’s conference a few years ago, I had an agent tell me my writing was ‘too writerly’.

Barbarian! And what was wrong with writerly, I wondered.

I went home, bleeding from every pore, determined to prove how unwriterly my writing really was. Six months later, I read what I had handed that agent and promptly died of embarassment.

This is a ghost who writes this comment. The ghost of an arrogant prick who learned the best way to learn to write, besides writing, is to know when to shut up and listen.

Comment by M.G. Tarquini

The world is full of arrogant writing instructors who are too quick in dismissing students. One has to realize that they are no better than the arrogant workshop peers. Your bullshit detector can usually determine what is truth and what is…well…bullshit.

As for positive/negative feedback: it’s tough when a manuscript is either brilliant or sucks big time. In one instance, you feel like you’re doing nothing for the writer by telling him/her how gosh darn good they are. On the other hand, if the story is no good, you feel like a real asshole if you don’t point out something nice, even if you’re just cushioning the blow. Having said that, I do enjoy trashing bad manuscripts from arrogant people.

Comment by Steve Allan

“…the best way to learn to write, besides writing, is to know when to shut up and listen.”

And that’s why Mindy’s my hero! Maybe someday I can figure out how to do that…

Great post, Jason. Putting that energy to work for you instead of against you is really, really good advice. Not always easy to do, though. It’s weird, but I always get more mileage out of negative criticism than kudos. I like the praise, but I usually feel like, “well, okay, but what do I need to do to make it better?” I hate the harsh stuff, but it kicks me in the ass & makes me work harder and smarter.

Comment by Angie

Seriously, you may be published but its through the people who do Harlequin romances.


Comment by CB

Well, I’m published by them too, and I don’t see that as a bad thing. When a major publishing house opens a top notch thriller imprint and signs up some of the best writers they can find, who am I to argue?

Comment by JT Ellison

with posts like this how long before we give up the newspaper?!!

Comment by garyM

Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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Comment by teenoie

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