In general, I am a fairly encouraging teacher. I say the kinds of things that I would’ve liked to hear, when I was starting out as a writer. Stuff like, “You’re not bad at this; you should pursue it further.” When students write a story that is halfway decent, I often encourage them to submit it to literary journals, because I think it’s important to learn how to submit.
But I’ve lately become a little bit uncomfortable with this stance. Somehow it just…it doesn’t feel right. Am I really benefitting either my students or the world by encouraging them? I mean, I am not one of those super pessimistic writers. I absolutely believe it is possible to work hard and achieve at least moderate success as a writer.
It’s just…there’s nothing good about being a writer. The world doesn’t really need another one. And even the best writers have a social impact that is fairly moderate. Writers also don’t make that much money and many of them seem to be fairly unhappy.
Which is fine. If that’s what someone wants to do, then I think they should do it and they shouldn’t feel bad about doing it. But it doesn’t feel like something that people should be encouraged to do. For the first time, I understand all those crusty old Harlan Ellison writers who say things like, “If you can imagine doing anything else, then you should do it.”
I always thought that statement was a bit over-dramatic and self-glorifying. Writing isn’t digging ditches. It’s not hard. It doesn’t use you up. It doesn’t kill you by inches. It’s really not a big deal. I don’t think that people should avoid a writing career because of the heartbreak and sorrow and tragedy of the artist’s life.
And I don’t think that writing necessarily needs to be your overriding passion in life. That’s just more of the same self-glorification. I think good stories can be produced by people who write just as a hobby or by people who see writing in an instrumental way: as a path to fame or fortune or whatever. If you want to write stories, for any reason, then I think you should.
But I also feel like it’s not right to try to instill that desire into people. I don’t think that wanting to write stories is something that should be praised or rewarded. It’s just another silly human tic, like doodling in a notebook while you take a call.
So yes, I do feel bad, sometimes, about being so encouraging.
Luckily, I’ve noticed that praise is deadly to a nascent writer. Praise often makes a writer stop producing, while criticism often spurs further efforts. I’m not sure why this is. I think it might be because praise makes writers think that success is right around the corner, when the truth is that it’s usually still many years away. There’s also a certain extent to which people really don’t want to do things that come too easily to them. They figure, “Oh, I’m already good at this…so I might as well do something that’s really hard.”