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Monday, December 20, 2010

Listen. Listen.

In exchange for tuition to get my MA in English, I tutored at the college's writing center. Tutoring is a bit like editing, and I discovered I loved it. Every day I'd show up for three hours. If no students came, I was free to work on my coursework or my own writing. When students showed up with papers, I would read their essays with them, point out mistakes in grammar or spelling, make sure they addressed the question, and suggest areas for improvement.

Over time, I picked up "regulars," and I got to know their quirks. One in particular was a young man battling dyslexia, and if I had no other students waiting, we would talk after his essay review. He had a difficult home life.

One afternoon he brought me the second version of an essay about "a vivid experience." He'd attended a sporting event locally, which I understood to be one of the rare ways he connected with his father. While there, the action on the field had gone terribly wrong, resulting in the death of one of the spectators. My student had seen it happen.

We went over his essay, taking care to read it aloud for sound, rearranging the paragraphs for impact ("You'll want to delay saying she died until afterward, to raise the tension") and experimenting with different words that better fit the description.

He said to me, "This is so tough."

I shrugged. "It is, but you have something important to say, and I want to make sure you know how to say it the best you possibly can. Like in this paragraph, where just by inserting a line of dialogue, you draw us into the story a little more."

I looked up and the kid was looking right at me, his mouth trembling, his eyes shining. Tears.

I stiffened. "What's wrong?"

He swallowed. "You really think I have something important to say?"

And there I sat with this college freshman, a guy who worked hard for every word he wrote and who could hardly talk to his family except about a sport that had left him traumatized, and I realized he'd made it through thirteen years of schooling without anyone telling him he had something worth saying.

Why do we teach people to write except that we think they have something important to say? Why was I the first person in this young man's entire life to make sure he knew his perspective was important?

You're writers: you want to tell your stories. For Christmas or whatever holiday you celebrate, give yourself the gift of believing you have something important to say. Give your message the gift of saying it as well as you can. That's why you're reading blogs about getting published. Believe in yourself. In the end, the only reason writers persevere against the odds and the rejection and the critique and the blocks because we believe our stories are worth telling.

And then pass along the gift -- the gift of making sure those around you know they've got something worth saying -- because everyone has a story, whether they're writers or just human beings living their daily lives. Give the gift of listening, the gift of affirming, the gift of letting others know their voices should be heard.

Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs(this December from MuseItUp). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency.


Amie McCracken said...

Oh my goodness. Very uplifting story. Thank you.

Genevieve Graham-Sawchyn said...

So beautiful. And the timing - I have a friend suffering from the same doubts and insecurities, and he's no college freshman. He's been around the world in many ways, but still doubts his gift. I'm passing your article on to him. Thanks.

Misha said...

Thank you for this wonderful post.

Another thing that is sad is that we take this truth for granted. We hardly think about it, while it could potentially be life-changing (as it was to each of us at one time) for people.

I hope he goes on to write many more wonderful essays.


Melissa Gill said...

I'm smiling through my tears. What a wonderful inspiration. I'll pass it on.

Africakid said...

Thanks for your post! You've given us a gift as well--of encouragement and empathy. I love how you interacted with the young man who didn't know he had anything worthwhile to say.

Deb Salisbury said...

I really needed this today. You are inspiring!

Lucinda said...

Very inspiring and warming during these cold months. Definitely needs passing along, so...I linked it to a favorite message board I haunt regularily.

Erin said...

That was absolutely beautiful! Thank you so much!

Andrew Rosenberg said...

Nice story.
Sometimes I forget that when I critique people...that the real purpose is to help them express themselves, not to make myself a better critiquer.

Ghenet said...

Thank you so much for this post. It's a message I really needed to hear and will definitely pass on.

Tom M Franklin said...

wonderful. thank you for passing this along to us.

-- Tom

She Wrote said...

Your post today was a gift to every writer - every reader. Thank you.

Glenna Fairbanks

CricketB said...

Thank you.

I get so caught up with the kids' spelling and punctuation, it's easy to forget to reassure them they are saying something important, especially with school assignments.

A.J. Cattapan said...

Like CricketB, I am a teacher. Your post is inspiring to me as a writer and a wonderful reminder to me as a teacher.

Your post will be one of the first things I talk about when school resumes in January.

Johanna Harness said...

Those tears of recognition were a frequent occurrence when I was teaching college English. I never got used to it. You've captured the experience really well.

Hope Clark said...

Beautiful. Thoroughly enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing.

Hope Clark

towriteistowrite said...

I've said this to students, but I don't necessarily believe it about myself. I'll pass the word to my critique partner. We can both use buoying up. Thank you.

Anne Barton said...

Loved this. Thanks!

Rena said...

This is a great story. Something like this happened to my husband who works as a parole officer. He supervises an American Indian and during one of his visits, my husband called him "sir". This man, a huge guy, started crying. No one had ever called him "sir" in his life. A little respect and encouragement goes A LONG way!

Lydia K said...

Wonderful post, Jane. And a great message, too.

Janelle said...

Thank you.

Each of my children is given a journal that they can use to write with me. They write their questions, their toughts, their worries and sometimes (especially in their younger years) they are just silly.

Your essay has given me the perfect thing to write to them in their new journals for this year:

"You have something important to say."

Smitty said...

You make me proud to be a writer. I will keep believing I have something to say, in spite of my terrible compunction to compare myself ... to writers like you~