When I was at Temple University, working towards my Masters in Journalism, I edited scholarship essays for undergraduate students. There was a saying I used when the writing was bad. I’d say, “Kill your darlings, and start fresh.” This was, of course, not original – an adaptation of the famous advice given to writers by Arthur Quiller-Couch – but it was true. Some things are always true. A few minutes ago, I took my own advice and held down the delete key.
I had so much to say in this letter, so much to point out. Let me show them this side of me, I thought. Let me make sure they realize I’ve done this, and studied that, and written for that magazine. I made a list. I connected the dots. It was all there, all neat and pretty.
Another laundry list of accomplishments, I thought, things I’ve done that are supposed to impress people. A Master’s Degree in Journalism, my own business, a staff writer at a newspaper. Doesn’t it all just make you giddy?
Well, it bores the shit out of me. The whole thing. All of it. To hell with that resume, that piece of paper, the thousand words I wrote yesterday.
Something I’ve learned thus far: I’m a little different. At Temple one evening, after class, our teacher handed us back a feature writing exercise, an exercise in descriptive writing. My classmates snatched up their reviews and obsessed over the comments, like lions on a carcass. I stuffed mine into the top of my backpack – pushing it in so it wouldn’t get caught in the zipper – and headed for the door. I hadn’t even looked at it. “Will,” the professor said, his face serious, “Did you look over my comments?”
“It was beautiful to me when I wrote it,” I told him, with no hint of sarcasm, “So long as you didn’t cross anything out, it’s still beautiful.”
The man could not comprehend. He finally muttered, “Oh, all right, Will,” his face blank, “See you next week.”
I was already out the door. Professors, I thought, they’ve never been too fond of me. I’m the cliché, I thought, the one they can’t get to. I had a way of becoming their projects. Everyone wanted to be the one who got through to me. Everyone wanted to be the one whose advice I took.
Look, I’m no rebel teenager, and I’m certainly no problem child. I’m reasonable. That said, I simply don’t care that you think I should use the word ‘fast’ instead of ‘quick.’ Come on, Mr. Professor, I wrote two thousand words here – there was even a sex scene, for Christ’s sake – and you want to chat about word replacements?
And that’s how education went for me, a bunch of people nitpicking about personal preferences, worshipping dead people who used to be good at something, and fighting to be the “best.” I did not care about being the best. I only wanted to be myself.
Writing seemed like a good way to be myself. It’s me and the blank sheet of paper, game on. I have one task: Write something beautiful. It could be about a girl, it could be about a piece of trash on the beach. Just make it beautiful, write it so when they read it, they feel as good as you do when you’re writing it, I tell myself. That’s a good feeling, when you write something beautiful. That’s a smile on my face no red ink can erase.
I remember a professor said to me, “Will, the others in class, they eat, breathe and sleep magazines. Look at them. They carry one around all the time. It’s their passion. See Anna there, she’s reading one now. She wants to write for Glamour. That’s how you do it, Will, you study how they do it. You read the way they do it and then see if you fit their style.”
And then it hit me. I shook my head, said a few words of agreement, and made him believe I took what he said to heart. I had, in fact. I went back over to my desk, opened my notebook, and wrote down this sentence: While the others are in here trying to figure out how to be like the writers before them, you’re out there living your life and writing it all down the way you see it… Keep it up.
My whole life people have said to me, do it this way, do it that way. Go to college, my mother said. Go to grad school, my father told me. Be an engineer. Study business. Get a job. Live at home. Save your money. Study hard. Save yourself for the right girl. Don’t curse. Wear a lifejacket. Can you afford that? Are you sure? What…you rent cars? With a Master’s degree? Cut your hair. Grow out your hair. Comb your hair. Be on time. Update your resume. Apply for the promotion. Don’t settle.
Hey, people, back off.
That’s your side of the story, that’s how you think it should go.
This is mine.