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The Geek's Guide to the Writing Life: Do You Have 'What it Takes?'

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It happens at least once a semester. A student writes me an impassioned note begging me to tell her whether or not she has what it takes to be a writer, imploring me to "stop her right now," if she doesn't. I've been teaching for 20 years and I've yet to completely figure out what, exactly, this kind of student is asking for. I think, or at least I hope, they're asking for permission to keep writing, permission I will gladly grant because, as I've said before, the only person who should be deciding whether you bring words into being is you.

Americans are big on gate keeping. Our society thrives on the extent to which people are allowed or not allowed to do something. We worry that the more people who are allowed to do something, the less precious it becomes.Because we like to fetishize our "artists," we set up an especially large number of gates to protect the idea of them and their rare preciousness. As a result, few people are actually allowed to become artists, but lots of people, from grade school on up, appoint themselves the "deciders" who determine the identity of those precious few.

A couple of examples: In my course on the teaching of creative writing I am invariably asked what a teacher should do if a student is "not talented." How does one "tell them?" The range of students asking this question is impossibly wide: some aspire to teach elementary school, some high school, some college. Regardless, this is a matter of great concern to all of them. Who gets anointed, who is allowed to continue on this path of becoming an artist and how do we let the non-elect down easy?

I want you to stop and think about this for a moment. I want you to imagine the student who plans to teach fourth grade taking nine-year-old Grace, who scribbles in her notebook every chance she gets, aside and telling her that her metaphors lack a certain oomph and that instead of writing in that notebook she'd better work on her ability to make change. Close your eyes. Got that image? Good.

Now I want you to imagine me, or someone similarly endowed with the power to make or break a 19-year-old's dreams, reading one of their very first efforts and deciding that, nope, this piece just doesn't have that certain spark that I was expecting to see and writing, in response to her plea for validation,

Dear Emily,
You ask if you have what it takes to be a writer? Based on the one assignment you've turned in, I have to admit, you're no Joyce Carol Oates or Toni Morrison. The good news is, I hear there's still room in that accounting class. . .

Honestly, if I only taught the students who immediately presented themselves as possessing that mysterious "what it takes," I'd be standing in front of an empty classroom. In fact, the front of the classroom itself might be pretty empty because for every teacher over the years who "anointed" me for my writing gifts, there was another who didn't think I was anything special and didn't hesitate to let me know. In other words, for every Mr. McCann who announced in the middle of Honors World Literature one day, "Stephanie Vanderslice is the best writer in this school," there was Mrs. Anderson who strode over to Heather McKenzie and me, the only two students at her review session for the AP Composition exam, clapped Heather on the shoulder and said, "I'm counting on you, Heather. You are my five."

For the record, I turned out to be her five too. So did a few others, actually. I don't know how Heather did. And yes, I am obviously still bitter about that, but I like to think that soul-crushing experience made me a better teacher. I know that in a weird way, it helped me become a better writer.

Another couple of stories, just to demonstrate that I'm not the only teacher who prefers to withhold judgment on a writer's ability to "make it": Many years ago, I was a student of novelist and NPR book reviewer Alan Cheuse. After class one night, a few of us pressed him to tell us which of his students had succeeded. He hemmed and hawed and finally threw out a few names we recognized. "The thing is," he emphasized, "it's not always the students you predict."

A few years later, while interviewing a well-known author with many years of teaching experience for a position at my university, one of the members of the hiring committee asked if he had ever told a student to give up on a writing career, that he just didn't have it in him, or if he could ever imagine a future circumstance in which he would deliver this kind of news.

Well-known author straightened in his chair and looked at us a little dumbfounded. "Why no, I never have and I don't think I ever would. To be honest, it's simply too hard to tell."

He was hired.

So, back to the student begging me to tell her if she has what it takes to make it or if she should "stop writing right now." The best answer is to tell her that it's not up to me. Is she willing to keep reading and practicing writing until her eyeballs bleed and the letters wear off her keyboard? Because that's what she needs to be doing at this point in her embryonic career. Is she willing to keep writing even when no one else is reading her work, even if no one else cares whether she writes or not? Because all that matters, really, is that she cares. And is she willing to keep writing even after an agent, editor or anonymous colleague has just delivered a withering critique of her work, the kind that stops a less determined writer cold. Because the truth is, I've met a lot of other writers along this path, writers who were more talented than I was and who, for one reason or another, put down their pens long ago. But I'm still here. Which is, I suppose, another kind of answer. I'm still here.