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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

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 staring 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…) is that 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.

(This is a repost from 12/2010.)


Marian Lanouette said...

Well said. Merry Christmas!

Deb Salisbury said...

Thank you, Jane. This is a lovely gift to writers.

Merry Christmas!