These are a few reasons why we may never read books by some of the greatest writers on the planet. Some are too narcissistic to take the criticism, too undisciplined to see it through the dry spells, or too committed to greatness to settle for publishing something good.
Beth Moore – “To New Writers with Love“
When I was in seventh grade, I was very unfortunate looking. Not just “ooh she’s in an awkward phase” but seriously in need of some help. After a year of long, strongly mousey-brown strands of hair hung to my shoulders, I decided to cut it off abruptly to my chin—and I went for bangs. It happened at the mall. The barber, who was probably some teenage girl still in beauty school, left me looking like a mushroom from Super Mario Brothers. Part mullet, part page-boy, my hair did not look good.
Add to the glorified bowl-cut a face full of zits, a mouth full of braces, and a body covered in Aeropostale clothing, and you can understand why no one, and I mean no one will ever see my school picture from that year.
But despite my poor looks, something happened that year. I had a teacher named Mr. Sherman. He was the type of teacher they make movies about. Short, quick, and with a strong Long Island accent, Mr. Sherman made us all feel like soldiers preparing for war. Like this class was so important, that if we didn’t listen, we might just lose it all in the battle. He barked lectures from the front of the room, slapped rulers down on desks, shouted “Huzzah!” when the time was right, and asked us to write 25-page papers just for the hell of it, because he believed we could. He had a jar of jellybeans he let us stick our grimy hands in at the beginning of class. He asked us hard questions. He forced the skinny bangs in the middle row to actually think she might matter to the world.
In short, he was great.
In March 2009, I was wearing a green shirt, chugging a jager-bomb in a Furman University apartment on St. Patrick’s Day. Music was loud, the room was crowded, and my hair was much cuter. I’d just received word that my dreams of going into Youth Ministry were slashed by an economic recession, and so in short order I decided to do what I never thought I could and actually party like a college kid. To party like a senior who’s graduating in two months with no prospects of employment. Though the music was thumping in the background, one lone lyric ran through my head the whole night… what am I going to do?
Several weeks (and hangovers) later, I received an e-mail from Teach for America. I was accepted, and moving to Nashville to be a teacher. Immediately I thought of my 7th-grade self. I thought of Mr. Sherman. So I called him.
“Here’s the thing kid,” he said. Through the cell phone speaker, his voice was more nasal, more Long-Island than I remembered. But I felt like I was sitting in a desk eating jelly beans. “Don’t you dare go watch Dangerous Minds or Freedom Writers or something. That’s Hollywood, and it’s not going to happen like that. You’re not going to go in there and change the world.”
“If you can create some structure and teach them some geography, you’ll do those kids some real good.”
At that moment, and over the next three years in the classroom—I felt a serious conflict between those two ideas. If I wasn’t going to be great, could I accept just being good?
This morning I had two e-mails waiting in my inbox. One was a line from my mother, in which she exclaimed “You have to read this,” and inserted a link. The other was an email from the Tennessee Department of Education which read, “Congratulations! Your application for a Tennessee teacher’s license has been approved.”
One e-mail was for a teacher. The other was for a writer.
In both professions, I’ve been plagued by this desire to be one of the greats. Sometimes I think that for me, being good just isn’t good enough. I want to be great.
But Beth Moore had words for people like me this morning. “Don’t be too committed to greatness to settle for publishing something good.”
I knew when I entered my first classroom, I wasn’t going to be Mr. Sherman. There weren’t going to be movies made about me. I was going to screw up a whole lot. But that didn’t keep me from showing up every day and teaching. I wasn’t great, but I was good.
So maybe when I sit down to write my first book, I won’t be F. Scott Fitzgerald, Leo Tolstoy, or John Steinbeck. But that shouldn’t keep me from writing something good.
If you’ve made it this far, I’d love to hear your thoughts:
Does your desire to be great ever keep you from doing something good? Who was your “greatest” teacher? Who is your favorite good (not great) writer?
Picture via Diana Delgado Studios