At what age do we have enough confidence in ourselves not to lose it? At what point in our lives do we fully understand our strengths, weaknesses, elements of character to the place where they cannot be shaken?
At 19, I thought I was close to that place. I knew the basics of what made me unique. One of those basic elements was writing. When I was in Kindergarten, my teacher Mrs. Carl asked me to dedicate my first book to her. She was convinced that I would author a bestseller. When I was eight, I asked for a modern typewriter of sorts – it was a generation one version of a laptop that only produced written documents in a Word format. I went to work on my short stories, most of which included magical discoveries in a woodsy setting – very ‘Bridge to Terabithia’.
In school I spent my time between classes in the library, checking out the newest arrivals in fiction and getting lost in the characters. The smell of books, the way the pages felt – I couldn’t get enough. My favorite weekend activity was a trip to Barnes and Noble.
My love for writing continued through high school and when I came home from lacrosse practices I would stay up, adding to the manuscript I had started. When I reached my junior year in college, I had reached 139 pages of my creative soul.
Junior year also brought a wave of communication classes that I had been waiting and craving to add to my schedule – writing. I had gotten through a few, but spring semester hit me with a writing course that I would never forget.
Most of the students in the class were a bit older, the course was a requirement for our major and taken within the last semester of college. I was graduating early, therefore surrounded by unfamiliar faces. I remember a guy in front of me that was studying abroad from Kenya, and two girls to my left that had expressions on their faces that my mom used to tell me would stick if I didn’t stop. Our professor was probably around forty with glasses. Tall, with a thinner frame.
Writing was a subject in which I never shied away. Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from a grammar guru. I can’t pick apart a sentence and tell you the technical term for each word, or make one of those tree diagrams, but I can tell you when something doesn’t quite sit well. I enjoy writing. I crave to write. I love learning more about the process. But I cling to the fact (as I start this sentence with ‘but’) that writing is very much that -a creative process – and there is a fine line between right and wrong.
I was recently in a board meeting and a teacher was showing us the work of some of her middle school students. They had created pamphlets describing the gospel. It was beautiful to see how each child would walk a non-believer through Christianity. I got to the middle of the pamphlet, and saw where the teacher had struck out a comma, and added the word ‘and’ to the child’s sentence. A comma may not have been the best or most correct choice, but ‘AND’ stuck out to me like a stop sign. There were so many other options. Her ‘AND’ was simply a personal preference. It brought back so many thoughts. It brought me back to junior year.
Our first assignment in this writing course was to cover an event and write a summary article – an article that would appear in a newspaper the next day, or within the ‘social’ section of a magazine the next month. I covered Charleston Fashion Week. This was something I KNEW. I HAVE this, I thought as I chose my subject. I went to Carol Hannah’s runway show, with bridal dresses as breathtaking as the Charleston streets they were named after, as they swept past me on the stage. I was inspired by her, the designs, and the article that was to come.
I sent in the first testimony of my work with the utmost confidence, hitting the ‘submit’ button with a loud click and shutting my laptop for a job well done.
The next week would produce reviews and grades. I learned quickly that our professor was not above calling out his students. He read those that received the highest grades, leaving us looking around at each other and knowing those that had fallen short that week. For the first time in my life, I had fallen short in the writing department. For the first time, my confidence was shaken to its very core.
When I received my paper back, it read ‘C’. I’m not sure I had ever seen that letter. It was unfamiliar. I thought I was going to vomit at my desk. After class I rushed to my professor’s office hours to discuss this horrid letter that fell too far from the beginning of the alphabet.
He was calm when we spoke, handing me another review on the same event by a male in our class. He had given him an ‘A’, and asked that I read both articles and I would see the clear difference.
That night I read. And read. Then I read again. I didn’t sleep. I went line by line looking for edgy fashion comparisons, descriptions drowning in perfection, cunning humor, SOMETHING that made this paper miles above the surface of mine. Nothing. I couldn’t find anything.
Was I that dense? Was I, in actuality, a horrible writer? Like those people that would try out for American Idol and look JLo dead in the eye and say ‘No, you’re making a mistake”?!? Am I out of tune and don’t know it?
I returned the paper and told my professor that yes, I saw the difference. I would try again on the next assignment. I lied. I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t see why my classmate’s review was superior.
So I continued to fall short. I received a B, then another C, then an A-. I couldn’t find a pattern – no rhyme or reason to this grading system. The two girls to my left with the unfortunate expressions looked dead at me as the professor would read off the names for the highest scores. It’s almost as if they wanted me to not be called. They enjoyed the fact that I didn’t succeed. I went back to the professor another time, but received the same blanket answers. The same examples of other students’ work that didn’t seem that different from mine.
Halfway through the semester I was so defeated. I was tired. Most of all, I was self conscious of what I thought I had known about myself. Writing was something that was mine – my escape, my creative cloud that no one could take away from me. When I received another less than satisfactory mark, I opened my computer and went straight to my 139 page manuscript, and hit delete.
I did every bit of extra credit outside of writing to finish the class with a B. I graduated from school that spring, and wouldn’t open my laptop to the vulnerability of writing until I created this blog six years later. Six years to get back to the creative space that makes me whole.
I don’t know the answer to the age at which we truly feel confident. But at 27, I’m enough of myself to not let a college professor take it away from me. Today I started page one of my new manuscript. If on page 139 I hit delete again, it will surely be on my own accord.
Photo by Emily Wilson