The Stamp of Approval

Sometimes writing students want me to assess their talent and the chances of their success. If at all possible, I will steer the topic away from this, but if they ask me point blank, I’ll say, “I really can’t say.” Which annoys people. But here’s why I can’t say: I have no idea what this writer will do next to develop as a writer, how tenacious they are, and how their writing will develop after hours, days, years spent at the keyboard.

But still I understand–really understand--their desire for the assessment. I remember wanting that myself. I wanted a writing elder to say, Go forth, writing cub! You are TALENTED. (It’s a little embarrassing to admit that but I also realize that it’s normal for newer writers to want this stamp of approval). But, the problem is this desire for validation privileges talent above all else and assumes that talent is an objective quality that established writers (whatever their aesthetic) will be able to accurately assess.

I remember when I was in a graduate workshop with David Shields, he looked around the room (there were 9 of us) and said, “It’s impossible for me to know which of you will succeed as writers. You are all talented, but I don’t know which of you are willing to stick with it long enough to get published.” At the time, I was still buying into the school of Talent Rules and doubted if what he said was true. There was one writer in the class who I was sure would be in the pages of Harper’s, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly within a few years. But, as it turned out, she cut her writing losses and left the program to pursue a career in law. Maybe she’ll come back to writing. I hope so. I liked her voice.

But all that being said, we all need encouragement, and a little encouragement can go a long way. My first college writing teacher, Penny Connell (Penny, are you out there?), pretty much looked me in the eye and said, “You got it, kid.” I was only 18 and if someone as smart as her said I got it, I must “have it.” I remember she’d written encouraging comments all over my first essay and the comments dropped right down into the center of me. I wanted more of this feeling. I wanted to capture readers like her.

15 years later I found that essay when I was going through some old papers. Wow! I thought as I began to read, excited to see those little germs of talent that Penny had called out. Well, let me tell you it was the most ordinary of freshman essays. I’ve taught freshman comp, and believe me, there was nothing in this essay that really jumped off the page. What had she seen? I don’t know. But I do know that it was her encouragement that made me want to write more. And, really, that’s the most we can hope for from our writing teachers.

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