As a 15-year-old student in Project Upward Bound at Northwestern University, I sat in the lobby of my dorm, peering one summer evening out a window, beyond the emerald trees at the blue lake, as I penned a poem for class.
“A cool silent breeze, whispering a sweet light tune, peacefully passes. As the warmth of the radiant sun, gently massages mint green leaves, on spring-fresh trees.”
I was still sitting there when my peer counselor, a guy named Mike who happened to be a Northwestern University student, walked up.
“I’m writing a poem for class,” I responded.
“Can I see it?” he asked. I handed him my notebook and watched proudly as he read my work. Then he fired another question with a queer look. “Who wrote this?”
Huh, I thought. “I did.”
“Really, John, who wrote this?”
“I did,” I insisted, puzzled.
“Really, who wrote this? . . . Because you can’t write worth a damn,” he said with a snicker. His words cut. I was embarrassed because other students heard what he said.
Maybe Mike couldn’t imagine such words coming from a ghetto boy. It didn’t matter that I was black like him with the same potential for success or that he was supposed to be my mentor, my liaison to a brave new world beyond the ’hood.
He handed me back my notebook. I sank into the sofa, tears filling my eyes.
Though enrolled in a college preparatory program, any dream of someday becoming a writer might very well have died that day — if not for the fire within.
For years, I have recalled that moment as early evidence of the existence of dream slayers. As proof of the likelihood of encountering the kind of ignorant drive-by sniping that can chip away at a writer’s psyche and confidence, if you let it.
Except it was not the last time as a writer that I was challenged or berated. Made to feel I didn’t belong or that my story, my words, my perspective and experiences were somehow jaded, inauthentic, invalid, irrelevant or just simply not good enough.
As a writer at a major newspaper, I once remarked privately to an editor: “I get the sense that my editors are saying that I can’t write.”
“John, that’s exactly what they’re saying,” she said.
The irony was that my first story published in that newspaper ran on the front of its nationally acclaimed feature section before I ever took a job there. And before I departed years later, I had proved them all wrong.
Still, in the subjective world of writing, I have been told throughout my career at various times and in various ways by various people that you’re not nearly the reporter or writer that so-and-so is. You’re not good enough. You can’t write worth a damn. And in recent years:
“You’re no Gwendolyn Brooks.”
“Screw your silly a– columns.”
And yet, I write. Inspired by life and the power and gift of storytelling, I write — propelled by the haters and naysayers. Except, I am not alone in my travails as a writer.
Here lately, I have been reminded of this by some of my journalism students and also by participants in a community writers’ workshop I founded to help others learn to write their own stories. They have faced their own “Mikes.”
No lessons I share with them are greater than these: Never internalize their disrespect. Keep writing. Keep your fire.
And keep proving “them” wrong with every word, every sentence and every single story because your stories are worth more than a damn. They’re worth you telling.