It’s been nearly 45 years since Avram Davidson, writer-in-residence at the College of William and Mary told me at the end of two semesters of toxic mentorship that I had no talent and that I should not bother to pursue my dream of becoming a writer. He was old and cranky then and he didn’t have the decency to stick around on the planet long enough for me to gloat at him.
I wish I could say that I shrugged off his cruel dismissal–well, I did eventually, I suppose–but it took more years than I care to admit. Upon publication of Nathan’s Run, one of my classmates from that workshop gave me a heartwarming plaque that hangs in my office in clear view as I write this.
I’ve written about this experience before, but it was brought back the front of my mind by a fictional confrontation that occurs in the excellent Netflix series, “Sex Education.” (Lest there be any doubt, this is not one to watch with the kiddos.) The scene in question occurs in the show’s fourth season, when our heroine, Maeve, has come to America from England to attend a college workshop conducted by the famous and fawned over literary genius, Thomas Molloy, who spills out quotable nonsense about how writing should take something from the writer. This is an exercise in suffering for one’s art.
While the other students in this workshop are bowled over by this pretentious twit, Maeve is more circumspect, sharing with him that she preferred his first book over the second one that won all the prizes. He’s impressed, he says, and then he tears her work apart under the guise of helping her tap that deep vein that makes writing hurt. When she finally pens her new first chapter, he tells her–wait for it–that she does not have the talent to make it as a writer.
Yeah, I had a flashback. I haven’t finished the season yet, but I can only hope that Maeve will be able to rub the asshat’s face in it before the final credits roll.
There’s an X Factor to teaching that I don’t pretend to understand. The best teachers in my life found a way to be thoroughly honest in their assessment of my work, driving me to be better without breaking my spirit. The problem with assessing art is that creativity is by its very nature relative. There is no objective standard, yet we all know bad when we see it. And then, in the truly confusing circumstances, we see stories and art that we know is objectively bad yet it still moves us. Those pieces are victories for the creator.
The lectern is a powerful thing. To stand there behind the mic is to be perceived as an expert by the people in the audience who are looking back at you. This is an opportunity to inspire. Or foment anger. Provide hope or project pessimism. If you’ve been to a writer’s conference, you’ve no doubt encountered the speaker who has experienced only failure, and whose mission seems to be to make the dream of publication seem hopeless.
Even if it were true, what’s the point of making people feel sad? Everybody knows that writing is hard and that getting published is even harder, yet people succeed at it every day. Why not concentrate on the probability of success–however much smaller than the probability of not-success–and fire people up to keep going?
I think there’s a special place in hell for people who try to ruin other people’s dreams.
What about you, TKZ family? Did you have teachers or coaches or bosses who inspired you to do things you never thought possible?