I’m lucky to have a teaching colleague/writing colleague/friend whom I think of as the Wikipedia of writing. (She also taught me how to actually use the electronic grade book our school asks us to use—she’s like Wikipedia and ask.com rolled into one! No, she’s like the bookstore and the hardware store, conveniently located in the same mall. No, she’s just Katie.)
I have never had one of these people in my life before. In grad school, I had a circle of wonderful, creative, talented friends. We were generally disgruntled that none of us won the school’s creative writing prizes, so we had another G&T and bitched about it at the local dive bar. As for the people who won the prizes: I didn’t get what made their work “excellent” and mine “not good enough.” Because that’s how I always thought of it. I’d never have looked to one of those writers for expertise or advice, because of fear, pride, or shame—which all seems pretty stupid now.
I think Katie was one of those people who got the prizes in graduate school. It’s a hunch. She is published, with an agent and an editor and a stack of glamorous-sounding responsibilities. She may even be something of an up-and-coming-writer-under-forty, but I don’t know. What I do know is we have conversations that go like this:
Me: “I’m struggling with this story I’m writing. I’m trying to write in a child’s voice, but then, I don’t really want to write as a child but more like an adult, looking back—kind of like in that story by Jim [mutual friend], where it was sort of a child’s voice but then also not, but I don’t really get how you do it…”
K: “Sure. It’s just a trick. You write a retrospective narrator. What you want is a narrator who sees things like a child would see them but has the vocabulary of an adult to describe them.”
Me: “Yes, that’s exactly what I want. I wish there was an example I could read…”
K: “Read Charles Baxter’s ‘Gryphon.’ He says something like ‘the hairdo I would learn later was called a chignon’—that’s a clue that the narrator is now an adult, looking back. But reading it, you’re very much getting a child’s perspective.”
And the next time I sat down to write, damn it if I didn’t bang out that retrospective narrator after reading Charles Baxter’s fine story “Gryphon.”
Something similar happened again over the weekend, when Katie, Jim, and another friend named Tom—members of my writing group, all—met to discuss my in-progress memoir. The conversation was very helpful, and when it was generally agreed that I need to lay out the theme of the book more carefully in the beginning and carry it through, I felt like kind of a failure—who spends five years writing a book, only to discover she doesn’t know what the theme of it is or at the very least has failed to articulate it?
K, lightly: “Don’t feel bad about it. You’re always supposed to do theme last.”
You are? One is? How does she know all of this?
I don’t know, but I do know I appreciate Katie. Not just for her knowledge about fiction writing, but for her support and friendship and humor and her desire to sit down over a bubble tea and discuss a retrospective narrator. I don’t have a mentor; it’s not something that really happened for me. But having done this writing thing for more than twenty years now, I am starting to realize that teachers and mentors arrive in all sorts of places if you’re looking for them. A book can be a teacher; a friend like Katie can be a teacher. You can be your own teacher, if you get out of your own way. I wish now I had spent less time in grad school feeling competitive or not good enough and more time just learning.
But I am relieved to say that, despite being unmentored and unmoored, and clearly having wasted my MFA years (I’m kidding), I have really learned how to have a writing community, of peers. We teach one another. I don’t feel competition or jealousy with any of the writers in my life; just gratitude and the desire to work together to make every one us the best writer we can be.
Most important, I no longer think of my work as “not good enough.” I’m just tapping away at something, hoping it comes together.