Saturday, November 27, 2010

Why I Didn't Become a Writer Back Then

Leo Tolstoy
Undiscouraged writers are all alike; but every writer was discouraged in his or her own way.

Apologies Leo, but you know that’s true.  Even you, the great Tolstoy admitted discouragement to your diary as you struggled through your first novel, Childhood: “Do I have talent, in comparison with the new Russian writers?  Assuredly not.”

I doubt there’s a true writer out there who at some point early on didn’t question his skills or wonder how she could contribute something that measured up to what’s already out there, let alone offered more.

I’m not talking about the critical self-judgments writers impose upon their works in progress—that’s a whole different subject.  I’m talking experiences that flat out discourage you from thinking you’re qualified to take pen to paper or put fingers to keyboard. 
Downtown Pittsburgh

My initial discouragement—one of several to follow—occurred in my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  But that’s also where many years later serendipitous encouragement brought me to my senses and led me to abandon my well paying career as a New York City lawyer for the vagaries of the writing life.  Thank you, Pittsburgh.

That’s where I am now, spending the Thanksgiving holiday with family in da ‘burgh.  A lot of fond memories here, but the discouraging one that has me smiling now occurred when I was a freshman in high school.  Peabody High School was distinguished then as a school that gave opportunities to mill town children willing to learn, regardless of their circumstances or origins.  This year it will close forever.   Perhaps that’s another reason I’m remembering the story.

Peabody High School

My freshman English teacher, Mrs. Morrison, was a legendary disciplinarian who thrived on language as the source of all things.  I was a kid from a neighborhood where all things revolved around sports, so what mattered most to me was playing high school football.  Besides, “who needed English,” only sissies read.  But Mrs. Morrison knew that.  She’d been teaching in this inner city school for years.  She had a way of getting you to think you might actually be able to write something if you put your mind to it.  She had me secretly believing I might be a writer.  Then came that fateful day.

She told the class she wanted us to hear what someone who applied himself to writing could do.  She introduced a senior to read his composition.  I knew him; he came from an even worse neighborhood than mine.  We’d been on the football team together and though he was a star he hadn’t finished the season.  We had a genuinely terrible team that year, and one afternoon after a particularly ignominious loss in which he’d taken quite a pounding, his mother stormed into the locker room and dragged him out of there in his football pants, t-shirt and cleats.  She was screaming something along the lines of, “You’ve got a full college scholarship for basketball and I’m not going to have you ruin your future by getting hurt playing for this lousy team.” 
John Wideman at U Penn

As I sat in that English class listening to someone only three years older than I read his work I thought, “Man, I could never write like that, and if a jock from that neighborhood can do that, just think how many others out there must be able to do better.  I'll never make it as a writer.”

Years later I realized his mother was right about his future and I was wrong to be discouraged.  Today, my teammate counts among his honors, a Rhodes scholarship, the American Book Award for Fiction, a MacArthur Fellowship, and the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction (twice).  He is one of America’s greatest living writers, John Edgar Wideman.
August Wilson outside his childhood home at far right

And then there’s that kid who lived up behind my aunt’s grocery store in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.  Not only was he younger than I, he never finished high school.  Thankfully, I had no idea back then of the extraordinary writing talent that would later win him, the late Tony award winning playwright August Wilson, two Pulitzer Prizes.  Otherwise, I might have thought writing genius was everywhere and been discouraged beyond hope.  
A then discouraged me.

Bottom line.  Don’t let discouragement get to you, especially if you’re from Pittsburgh. 

Jeff – Saturday


  1. How much did financially security play a part in your decision to write full-time? How many creative people can't choose to develop their talents because of the financial responsibilities that require full-time attention?

    Women in particular, especially if they are first-born, are put on a path early in life that requires them to place responsibility over personal choice. I have a friend who is the oldest of four. She and her sister, the second born, got some financial aid to middle tier colleges. Their choice of college was determined by their ability to pay the balance when they graduated; they became two of the millions with student loans that determined their job choices, too. The youngest, 14 and 12 years younger than his sisters and 8 years younger than his brother who went to a college with a co-op curriculum, was accepted at Harvard. His siblings didn't apply because that would have been a wasted application fee.

    The three older members of the family are a chemistry teacher, an English teacher, and a speech therapist. The youngest is a pediatrician. He left medical school with major debt but with less difficulty in repaying med school loans.

    The two oldest and the youngest had comparable GPAs and SAT scores. The youngest wasn't brighter or more committed to his education. Birth order made the difference.

    In my family, gender and birth order made the difference. Boys needed a better education; they were going to support families. Did any of us have thwarted creativity? I don't think so but it wouldn't have made a difference if we did.

    I bet there are a lot of people from Pittsburgh who had circumstances beyond their control that determined their path.


  2. Beth,

    Pittsburgh children were not alone in seeing artistic goals measured in by financial realities, especially if the child's parents suffered through the Great Depression.

    Although not mentioned in my piece, while a freshman in that same high school I took a ceramics class and won a National Art Award for sculpture at fourteen, but as pleased as my parents were over the prize they made it clear that medicine or law, not art, was the career path I should follow.

    In retrospect (especially from these times of the Great non-Depression) I appreciate their thinking--because they were right. My first career most certainly enabled the second.