Here’s the thing. Every day, all day long, ideas of things I want to write run through my head and sometimes I scrawl notes or rough drafts or sometimes I tweet the ideas, so that when I finally find a moment to sit and breathe, I will be able to write all the things that have been running through my head for days on end. But when I finally find a moment, when I carve a moment from the blur of day and sit down and open a new page, my hands freeze. My hands freeze, my heart stops and suddenly I just feel tired and afraid. Sometimes I force myself and I’ll squeeze something out. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s crap. Sometimes I’ll try and I’ll try, I’ll write and I’ll delete and I’ll scribble and I’ll scratch out and then I’ll just give up because not being to be able to write is more painful than I can explain.
When I was ten, I wrote a story for a class assignment. I worked on it all weekend, I worked on it every day after school, I wrote draft after draft, editing and crafting and loving every moment of it. It was a ten page underwater romance, the story of a merman and a mermaid, hopelessly in love. I couldn’t wait to hand it in, I was sure I had created a masterpiece, I knew my teacher would love it. But instead of finding words of praise scrawled in the margins, my story was scribbled all over in red ink, all of it’s flaws circled, all the mistakes underlined, every error scratched and rejected. And at the bottom of the last page, in red letters that blotted out my carefully crafted ending, she wrote: “TOO MUCH DIALOGUE, NOT ENOUGH STORY.”
When the bell rang at the end of the day, I took my time gathering my things. I waited until all the other kids had left and then, story in shaking hand, I approached her desk. She was entering grades into her grade book, glasses perched on the end of her pretty nose, shoulders hunched in concentration.
“Mrs. Penny? Um, what’s wrong with my story?”
She put her pen down, folded her hands on her desk, heaved an irritated sigh. “Did you read my comments? Or were they unclear?”
I took a deep breath. “Well, um, I don’t, um … I just –”
“It’s all dialogue. It doesn’t go anywhere. There’s no middle and the end is weak.”
I stood there, cheeks burning, tears threatening to spill over the ends of long lashes.
“Is there anything else you need or may I finish my grades?”
I shook my head and turned on my heel.
If you were to ask me why I’ve never tried to write a book, I’ll tell you it’s because I don’t know how to construct a story. I might come up with an idea, but there’s no middle and no end and anyway, it’s terrible. There’d be too much dialogue and not enough story.
That woman had no business teaching creative writing to fifth graders.
In tenth grade I had a teacher who told my mother my career would be in writing. This woman was kind, nurturing and encouraging. Besides the Physiology class where I got to dissect a fetal pig, Mrs. Parker’s tenth grade English class was my favorite class in my entire student career. She assigned several writing exercises every week and her critiques were such that after listening to her talk about one of your poems or stories, you couldn’t wait to sit down and rework it. But I don’t remember her compliments and I don’t remember her words of encouragement. I remember Mrs. Penny, her blonde ponytail, her blue eyes and her bright red pen. Why is that?