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.
author of THE MARK
Coming July, 2007 from MIRA books
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