During my prison writing class this week, one of my students approached me and said he wanted to talk. Like all the men, he wears khaki scrubs and enormous khaki lace-up hiking boots (which seems a rather cruel joke). Like most of the men, he towers above me. I always forget how short I am until the end of class when they unravel themselves from those tiny desks. This particular student is thoughtful and cheerful and shows talent. The week before he had shown me the first few pages of a story he’s writing about a young girl struggling to find a better life. Last month he shared the first part of a memoir he’s writing.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“I don’t think I can do this anymore.” His voice was soft, his eyes on his boots.
“Why not?” So many things can happen in a prison — men get transferred, they get locked up, their schedules shift. Change is a constant here — sometimes seemingly arbitrary and sometimes because the inmate does something felony-stupid.
“I just want to give up.”
“Give up?” I said. “Why would you say such a thing?”
“What’s the point?” he said. “I try so hard. I work at something for a long time and then it’s no good.”
“Who told you it’s no good?”
He laughed and looked at me. “My editor-in-chief.”
Good Lord. He meant me. “When did I say that?”
“I gave you that piece to read and I thought when I gave it to you it was brilliant, and then you gave it back to me and you had all these comments on it.”
Oh dear. “I told you I liked it, didn’t I?” He nodded. “I told you I thought you should keep going with it, and that I wanted to know what happened next, right?” He nodded. “I told you I thought you had talent, didn’t I?”
“Yea, I guess so.”
“So how did that turn into ‘it’s no good’?”
“I thought it was perfect, and then after you looked at it I saw how bad it really was and I don’t think I can do it.”
And so we sat down and had a chat about what it takes to be a writer, including that great quote from Oscar Wilde (who also did some time) about how he spent the morning taking out a comma, and spent the afternoon putting it back in. We talked about how what the student heard, and what I said were two different things. I never said his work wasn’t any good; his internal “Editor-in-Chief” said that, the annoying little bugger.
All writers do that, of course. My husband used to threaten to put a recording device on my phone calls with my agent and publisher because no matter how many lovely things they said, I’d get off the phone convinced I was a talentless, unpublishable hack.
“You have to give yourself permission to write crap,” I said. “You’re learning. It takes time. It’s slow work, and hard work. I write a boatload of crap for every book I finish. So will you, if you’re lucky.”
He looked at me as though he wasn’t quite sure about my mental health, but he agreed to keep going.
Now, it’s true these men have some special challenges. For the most part, they’re not in prison because they’re masters of discipline, patience and hard work. But the truth is they’re not much different than most of my students outside prison. I can’t tell you how many students walk into class presenting their work so reverently you’d think it was the next “Ulysses,” nor can I adequately describe how deflated some become, even if the work is good, when they learn their prose could use just, oh, let’s say a little tweaking.
If I had only one piece of advice for emerging writers I would say this:
Give yourself permission to write poorly, to write dreck, to write garbage, and lots and lots and lots of it, just like a person dreaming of being a concert pianist will hit a gazillion sour notes over the years and years it takes him to play Rachmaninoff’s concerto no. 3 properly.
If you don’t expect this, and accept it, your ego will get in the way and you’ll give up. You will permit that internal critical voice, the “Editor-in-Chief”, to whisper nasty lies in your ear, you’ll quit, and then the voice wins. Tell the voice to just step outside for a moment, take a seat and wait, you’ll be right with her, and then shut the door and get on with your writing. Fill up buckets with your crumpled pages, fill up rooms, full up whole houses, whole cities…Eventually, slowly, you’ll improve, and that’s what it’s all about.
Writing is a path towards a perfection you’ll never reach; keep going anyway. I’m not saying everyone who wants to write will be the next James Joyce, or Alice Munro or Virginia Woolf. I’m saying that if you don’t write your way through the city of crumpled paper, you’ll never find the garden at its center.