An interesting question kept popping up in the course of my recent (and continuing) Target: Tinos book tour. Twice I was asked at an event why it took me so long to “launch” my writing career, and the kind folks at my alma mater (Washington & Jefferson College), who have me considering the opportunity of teaching a course there, wondered why my college years focused on the sciences rather than English.
I had a very simple answer. It also had the convenience of being the truth wrapped in an interesting story with a moral. That’s why I thought it might interest the readers of our PPP blog and decided to write about it this month. As I did, the keystrokes seemed all too familiar, which was when I realized I’d told the story before, two years ago to be precise on my Murder is Everywhere blog.
I thought to play with it stylistically but decided against it. Let’s just say that the statute of limitations ran on the old one and leave it at that. So here’s why I didn’t become a writer “back then.”
Undiscouraged writers are all alike; but every writer was discouraged in his or her own way.
Apologies Leo, but you know that’s true. Even you, the great Tolstoy admitted discouragement to your diary as you struggled through your first novel, Childhood: “Do I have talent, in comparison with the new Russian writers? Assuredly not.”
I doubt there’s a true writer out there who at some point early on didn’t question his skills or wonder how she could contribute something that measured up to what’s already out there, let alone offered more.
I’m not talking about the critical self-judgments writers impose upon their works in progress—that’s a whole different subject. I’m talking experiences that flat out discourage you from thinking you’re qualified to take pen to paper or put fingers to keyboard.
My initial discouragement—one of several to follow—occurred in my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But that’s also where many years later serendipitous encouragement brought me to my senses and led me to abandon my well paying career as a New York City lawyer for the vagaries of the writing life. Thank you, Pittsburgh.
A lot of fond memories in da ‘burgh, but the discouraging one that has me smiling now occurred when I was a freshman in high school. Peabody High School was distinguished then as a school that gave opportunities to mill town children willing to learn, regardless of their circumstances or origins. This year it will close forever. Perhaps that’s another reason I’m remembering the story.
My freshman English teacher, Mrs. Morrison, was a legendary disciplinarian who thrived on language as the source of all things. I was a kid from a neighborhood where all things revolved around sports, so what mattered most to me was playing high school football. Besides, “who needed English,” only sissies read. But Mrs. Morrison knew that. She’d been teaching in this inner city school for years. She had a way of getting you to think you might actually be able to write something if you put your mind to it. She had me secretly believing I might be a writer. Then came that fateful day.
She told the class she wanted us to hear what someone who applied himself to writing could do. She introduced a senior to read his composition. I knew him; he came from an even worse neighborhood than mine. We’d been on the football team together and though he was a star he hadn’t finished the season. We had a genuinely terrible team that year, and one afternoon after a particularly ignominious loss in which he’d taken quite a pounding, his mother stormed into the locker room and dragged him out of there in his football pants, t-shirt and cleats. She was screaming something along the lines of, “You’ve got a full college scholarship for basketball and I’m not going to have you ruin your future by getting hurt playing for this lousy team.”
As I sat in that English class listening to someone only three years older than I read his work I thought, “Man, I could never write like that, and if a jock from that neighborhood can do that, just think how many others out there must be able to do better. I’ll never make it as a writer.”
Years later I realized his mother was right about his future and I was wrong to be discouraged. Today, my teammate counts among his honors, a Rhodes scholarship, the American Book Award for Fiction, a MacArthur Fellowship, and the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction (twice). He is one of America’s greatest living writers, John Edgar Wideman. That’s him in the photo at the top of this piece.
And then there’s that kid who lived up behind my aunt’s grocery store in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Not only was he younger than I, he never finished high school. Thankfully, I had no idea back then of the extraordinary writing talent that would later win him, Tony award winning playwright August Wilson, two Pulitzer Prizes. Otherwise, I might have thought writing genius was everywhere and been discouraged beyond hope.
Bottom line. Don’t let discouragement get to you, especially if you’re from Pittsburgh.