In the Beginning…

“The farmer looks to his field for sustenance, even when it is a lean harvest. Because he is a farmer, and that is all he has.” ~Theodicus

I wrote my first short story when I was in sixth grade, well, the summer after sixth grade, while everybody else was at the YMCA learning how to swim. I spent that summer in my mom’s office, for the most part. These were the days when kids could do that without repercussions from employers. My sister and I would hang out in the back offices, where no one seemed to have worked for a decade, drawing, playing tag, and occasionally getting into other sorts of mischief.

We also took these classes through the university (where my mom worked). These were for kids who were in middle school, to keep up their skills. I absolutely loved most of them, one of which was a creative writing class. Sure, I had written flashes of fiction prior to that summer, but nothing cohesive, nothing that hung together nicely enough to call it a real story. So I was excited to put it all together. I had an inkling that writing would mean more to me and my future, even back then.

That’s when I found out how hard it was to write, to put words together that made some kind of sense in a complete story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The first day of class our teacher came in and said, “Write a story.” He told us we had the whole 50 minutes to write on anything we wanted. I spent the first 20 coming up with something I thought might be good enough for him. I should have spent the time thinking of a plot, because that fell through the cracks.

When I emerged from the 50 minutes I looked down at my work and I was devastated. I knew in that moment that I would never be a writer, that my words would never be read by anyone else outside of school. Yikes. I had so many plot holes the whole thing was like Swiss cheese. I had 2-dimensional characters who didn’t know how to leap off the page. I had a series of events that led to obvious conclusions from the start. To say it was so much hot garbage would have been to give it too much credit.

And the teacher ripped it completely apart, but what hurt the most was that I had come in with such expectations. Luckily for me, he wasn’t a teacher who just slapped grades on things and said, “Do better next time.” He offered constructive criticism and told me to revise, to get inside the minds of my characters, something I had never even considered before. So I did, and I reconstructed that story from the ground up.

Of course, looking back on it now, that piece still wouldn’t win any awards for creativity or for solid writing, but it is leagues better than it was, which I believe was his point. I shouldn’t give up, even if the path is hard, even if the revisions sap me of energy, because the end results are well worth the journey to get there. That instilled in me the mantra that I tell my students every semester: “You first draft should never be your final draft.”

It’s easy to be harder on ourselves than we are on anyone else, because we expect the world from ourselves, but anything good takes time. We need to give ourselves that time to breathe life into our characters until they can breathe on their own. We need to give them what they need to survive, then sit back and watch them go. I love reading that first short story, from so long ago, and smiling to myself. Because it got me started, and we all have to start someplace, right?

Sam

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