In the 6th grade, I wrote a paper about the country of Venezuela for a class assignment. When the graded papers were returned to us, I eagerly flipped to see my grade (yes, these things excited me), and I was rather surprised. It wasn’t just because of the grade (I thankfully got an “A”), but because of the remark that my teacher, Miss Martens, made next to it. “You are a talented writer!” she wrote.
And guess what? I instantly believed her.
Those five simple words would have quite an impact on me moving forward and would shape my dreams for years to come. Prior to that, I’d always enjoyed writing and well, doing anything creative, but I’d never really worried about whether or not I was actually good at it. I’d written “books” as early as five years old (stories I’d write and illustrate). My friends and I wrote songs (and performed them too…but that’s a story for another day), and we even started a “newspaper” for the street on which we lived, reporting on the very “important” events going on in our neighborhood (“Breaking News: Mr. Bruno Builds New Fence on Property, Ding-Dong Ditchers to Find New Route”). I loved writing and being creative simply because it was just a natural part of having fun.
Until, of course, that fateful day in the 6th grade. Now, it was more than just fun. It was a skill. It was a talent. And apparently — at least according to Miss Martens — I was good at it.
Moving forward, I continued to write, but now with the belief that it might take me somewhere. I wrote short stories, poetry, more songs, even started a novel or two (as you might imagine, I didn’t get very far with the novels). I entered contests, submitted my work to teen publications, anything I could to propel my “craft.” In the 11th grade, I would win a regional prize in the Los Angeles Public Library Short Story Contest (I got to attend an official awards ceremony and everything!), and my story was even published in our then local town newspaper. I was on the road to success! Maybe there was some merit to what my 6th grade teacher had said after all.
But then there was the flip side: anytime I didn’t get a glowing review on a paper, or anytime one of my submissions was rejected, I was crushed. Each time, I doubted by abilities and thought that maybe my 6th grade triumph was merely a fluke. Maybe I wasn’t really any good at all. In high school, I would take a particularly crushing blow when my 9th grade English teacher called me “comma happy” while grading one of my papers. Ummm, comma happy? How dare she? I’ll show her! And for years, I was painfully aware of every comma I placed, scrutinizing each one’s necessity, and making sure that comma absolutely needed to be there before committing to it. The use of the Oxford comma? Pshhh…no, thank you! Yep, I’ll show her. (To say I took my writing too seriously would be an understatement.)
But the relentless self-doubt had kicked in, and this pattern of allowing my work to be affected by what others thought would continue in the years to come. By worrying about others’ opinions, I became overly self-conscious and far less productive. Over time, my dreams shifted from being an aspiring novelist or screenwriter to succumbing to the notion that my 9 to 5 job was “good enough,” and writing was pushed to the back burner. I was trapped by the perception that others had to validate my work before I could ever be called a “writer,” and that left me producing almost nothing at all.
I went down different career paths over the years, but none that fulfilled me the way writing would. It wasn’t until I was faced with an illness that would steal my ability to physically go in to a job everyday that I knew it was time to revisit this whole writing thing. Without any other options, there were no more excuses. There was no time to fear or doubt — I just had to leap. It no longer became about whether others thought I was good or bad at it; I just had to do it.
We all have an imprint to leave behind. I may not have written the Great American Novel (yet!), but at the moment, this blog is my place to leave my mark, no matter how many (or few) people are reading it. I’m also fortunate to be able to contribute to local magazines (like this one and this one). Comma happy or not, as we transition into the New Year, I realize that this is my current imprint on the world, and good, bad, or indifferent, I’m okay with whatever it turns out to be.
Finally, whether or not Miss Martens was right, the fact that she gave me that little nudge of encouragement meant the world to me. It set me on a path that gave me hope, drive, and determination. She is that teacher who changed my life with a single sentence.
And by the way, as you might have noticed, I began using the Oxford comma again. I have to admit: it is quite liberating.