“You’re all very talented,” said my professor, Berkley Hudson. He looked around the room at the seventeen of us who make up his Advanced Writing class. About a third of us had laptops open. Another third scribbled in notebooks. The other third sat, soaking it all in.
We bring a lot of different things to the table. Of the seventeen, three of us are engaged. At least one has lost a parent to cancer. At least one has been abused. One has a horse for a soulmate. One is the president of Epic, MU’s literary magazine. One won the 2010 Don Romero Prize for outstanding magazine writing. One has already published her first book. Some of us have jobs lined up. Some of us have no idea what the future holds after May 15 when we will all graduate.
“You’re talented enough that you need to write for the rest of your lives,” Berkley went on, with his subtle southern drawl. “And if you don’t, there’s going to be something gnawing at you. I don’t care what you do for a job.”
We were passing around the latest issue of The Paris Review, reading aloud the interview with John McPhee. Some big writers got where they are by privilege. But that was not the common thread, Berkley argued. The common theme was that they were all tenacious. Talented writers know what they want, and they know what they’re willing to do to get it. Rejection. Countless rejections are endured. Countless drafts. Bad drafts. All writers have to write bad drafts before they can come up with good work.
At one point, someone told McPhee his stories were pretty good. He clarified that he didn’t say “very good.” Just pretty good. Writers develop slowly. Very slowly. It takes years of practice. It takes years of grunt work writing blogs or alumni newsletters or community articles for small town papers. That’s what forms writers into what they will eventually become.
Berkley looked at us and told us we had to decide what we were willing to give up. Decide where we wanted to live, what climate we liked. We have to decide everything. The main thing is to decide what we want, whatever that is, and be aware of it. And go after it.
I am very talented. In that room of my peers, I don’t think I am. Some of them exude a greatness I can only wonder at. But then I read something I’ve written, and they respond with their approval. I am very talented. At least, that’s what they tell me.
Perhaps I will be a journalist. I think that sometimes. I will have a journalism degree, that is for sure. But maybe, just maybe, I actually want to keep doing this. Perhaps I will write fiction. Perhaps I will become a teacher and find ways to pass on my passion to kids. Perhaps I will become a wilderness guide and write tales of my adventures. Or comedic travel writing like Bill Bryson. Perhaps I will become a missionary and write memoirs that will move people to care about the plight of others. Perhaps I will pinpoint my passion. And go after it.