When I am out and about doing writery things, I’m always slightly nervous that someone (a teacher, a parent, a friend of a friend) will suddenly reach into a bag and pull out a large, brown, A4-sized envelope. And I know the dreaded moment has arrived when someone is going to ask me to read their story.
It’s at these times that I wish I was good at saying ‘no’. Social awkwardness makes me queasy. This is obviously a genetic trait, as my university-age son once sat in a pizza restaurant until closing time, gently starving, because he didn’t want to embarrass the staff by pointing out that they had forgotten to bring his order.
Sometimes, I’m actually brave enough to stutter that I don’t have much time for reading. Which is true. But even if I had mastered Time (rather than the reverse), what I would actually like to say – if only I had the courage – is this: ‘I don’t mind reading your story . . . I just don’t want to have to tell you what I think about it afterwards!’
Now, this isn’t because the story will be dreadful: they can show great promise. But, so far, the brown-envelope stories have been, without exception, what I like to call ‘L-stories’. Let me explain:
I often visit schools and libraries to work with students on their creative writing, and I love it. I’m not in schools to pass judgment; I’m there to help students identify and celebrate the good things about their writing – and to push them on even further. I’m there to encourage young writers to take chances and risk making mistakes, because mistakes are how you learn. I tell my students: never settle for ‘good-enough’; only for the best you can do right now. And your best will keep getting better.
But in the brown-envelope scenario, the writer isn’t asking me to help them learn to write better. They want me to tell them whether or not their story is any good. What they don’t realise is: it’s not that simple.
People who ask you to read their stuff are, by definition, still learners. They are navigating a long and lonely road; L-plates on their imaginations; their writing sat-navs indicating they have reached somewhere between ‘starting out’ and ‘nearly there’. I know that if I – Published Author – mess it up and say the wrong thing, I could confuse, discourage, or cause them to lose their way entirely.
In schools, I can explain about pushing yourself, about learning to love mistakes and risk-taking. I want to tell the brown-envelope people that it isn’t about this particular story. You will write many stories on your journey to become a writer. What it is all about is the quality of your dreaming. And I would warn: those writers who never travel outside their comfort zones will wear L-plates forever.
So, my advice to a Learner Writer who really wants to improve is to read lots of different kinds of books, not just the comfortable ones. The best guides are both the books you love immediately and – perhaps even more – those you grow to love. Not the writers: their books. Read, and write. And rewrite. Especially that.