Kelly Braffet is the author of the new novel Save Yourself.
When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a writer. I read voraciously and was always scribbling something in the composition book I constantly carried with me. I was also a nerd: I loved vocabulary words and diagramming sentences, and I never got any grade lower than an A in English – not, that is, until my junior year. Honors English; Mrs. Smith. Which isn’t her real name. She gave me a C on the first essay I wrote in her class. I loathed her.
Not for the grade; honestly, I don’t even remember what that C-essay was about. I remember that it was on the lyrical side, and that I squeezed in the word “dichotomy,” and that it was fun to write. I loathed her for what she wrote across the top of it, in perfect teacher penmanship:
Kelly: I know you like to be creative, but at some point you’re just going to have to face the fact that you’re just like everybody else.
Not surprisingly, she turned out to be a terrible teacher. It was a bleak year: I loved books and writing with all my heart, and she managed to suck the joy out of both for me. In Mrs. Smith’s class, there was only one way to write an essay, and it left no room for being lyrical: Say what you’re going to say, say it, and then say what you said. Outlines must be slavishly followed. Each paragraph must contain only one idea. By the end of the year, I’d mastered the mechanical style she wanted; it felt awkward and contemptible, but I did it anyway. My final essay earned me a perfect score – “one of the few I’ve ever given,” she said. I suppose Mrs. Smith thought she’d really taught me something. She had, but it had absolutely nothing to do with writing.
One day, Mrs. Smith told us to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I wrote about wanting to be a writer. I wrote about how I’d loved books as long as I could remember and was never happier than when I was deeply immersed in a story. I probably added something about wanting to win the Pulitzer by 25 and the Nobel by 30, because that was the kind of obnoxious kid I was. I didn’t really know anything about either except that winning them would be good, but I was young, and I had big dreams. That’s what being young is about.
When this paper was returned, she’d written the following: I used to want to write mysteries, but as I grew older, I realized it wasn’t possible. Eventually you’ll find a more realistic goal.
In other words: I was 17, and I told her my dream, and she told me to give it up.
After school, I drove to the mall. Soon enough, as always, I found myself in the bookstore. There, surrounded by all of those lovely shelves, row upon row of lovely books, I realized: They hadn’t written themselves. People had written them. Clearly, writing books was not impossible. I was a person; therefore I could write books. And also, Mrs. Smith could go to hell.
Sometimes, young people who want to be writers ask me for advice. Read everything, I tell them. Keep a journal. Don’t worry about winning the Pulitzer by 25 and the Nobel by 30; just read and write. Also – I tell them – be just the tiniest bit arrogant. When somebody calls your story junk, shrug and think, You’re wrong. Because people will say that kind of thing. Job interviewers will ask exactly what you meant to do with that writing degree; well-intentioned relatives will ask you the same thing, but more kindly. Agents, editors, reviewers and the book-buying public will all occasionally say thanks but no thanks, and online reviewers will say far worse, and if you can’t brush all of that off, the whole thing will be too hard, and you won’t make it.
Somehow, at that moment when I was 17 and most needed to be able to shrug and say, You’re wrong, I could. But Mrs. Smith had been teaching for decades. Mine were not the first dreams she tried to crush. What happened to all those other kids, the ones who came before me and after me, the ones who couldn’t shrug and say, You’re wrong? What happened to the ones who listened to that sad, stupid woman, and believed her?
I’m angry for those kids, the ones whose ambitions she succeeded in napalming. I tell this story every chance I get, because there are a lot of Mrs. Smiths in this world, and not just when we’re teenagers. Even if you don’t want to be a writer or a musician or a painter, even if what you want is to go to grad school or run a 5K or adopt a baby or build your own house:
if you tell somebody your dream, and they tell you it’s wrong, don’t listen. They don’t know what you can do. Neither do you, unless you try.