First, a confession: I’m a good student. And I’m not proud of it. This is because being a good student has nothing to do with talent, intellect, or even hard work. Being a good student is all about good grades. Think of Martin Prince, resident effete nerd on The Simpsons, sitting in front row, waving his raised hand, straining out of his desk for recognition. “Oh! OH! Pick me, teacher! I’m ever so smart!” Even now, I still translate percentages into letter grades. It’s that bad.
The appeal of good grades is the reliable work-reward trade-off. As long as I did everything the teacher told me to, I got my good grades. And, oh, the good things that came with good grades: gold stars, being admired above siblings and peers, lavish praise from impressed adults, report card dinners at Olive Garden with dessert. Good grades also translated into less tangible benefits. They gave me confidence that I was better than people who were more attractive, athletic, and popular. They assured me of the existence of objective, quantifiable, attainable perfection. They promised me that if I just got enough right answers, I would achieve something great.
Maybe this was part of the reason I was drawn to Grub Street’s Novel Incubator. It was the good student novelist’s dream. First of all, I would have to be selected from a group of other applicants (another gold star to stroke my competitive streak). Then, over the course of the year, I would get constant feedback on everything from plot structure to sentence craft. When the feedback was inconsistent, the instructors would serve as arbiters of what made the grade and what didn’t. Every workshopped passage would come with another concrete list of things to be corrected. If I just made every correction and ticked off every box on the checklist, just worked hard enough and did everything they told me to, my perfect novel would emerge. Certain work leading to certain reward.
As I worked through my revision, I treated the critiques of my classmates, and particularly those of our instructors, as gospel. Hate a character? Gone. Point of view not working? Out. Disorienting structure? Changed. Changed to whatever the class decided would work. Writers are often told to kill their darlings. I massacred mine. I snuck into their rooms while they slept, killed them with brutal efficiency, and buried them in the backyard. Nothing was sacred. Unless, that is, someone said they liked it. In which case, I would do whatever literary handspring was required to keep it in. And, as stupid as it sounds now, I was sure this would result in my perfect novel.
Imagine my shock when I submitted my full second draft at the end of the course and received the following reaction: It’s much better. But it’s not there. Keep working.
Keep working? Keep working? The whole point of this exercise was that I wouldn’t need to keep working! And how am I supposed to keep working once there’s no one to tell me what to do? School was out for summer, and my grade was an incomplete.
So, I did what any life-long grade-grubber would: I pouted. And I come from a long line of expert pouters, so this took some time. But after I was done pouting, I realized that I had missed the point. Spectacularly so.
For one thing, my disappointment obscured all the things I had gained from that year’s work. I was an indisputably better writer. After all, nothing improves one’s writing like doing a whole lot of writing. Furthermore, through reading and analysis, I’d developed my own standards for what I liked and what I didn’t. I’d also met other writers who inspired and challenged me. They even returned my emails.
I also learned the value of risk. Writing is a risk. And writing anything as big as a novel is a very big risk. There are no grades or guarantees to guard against failure, nothing to make it any less terrifying. If I had fully understood the magnitude of this risk at the outset, I might have talked myself right out of the whole endeavor. I’m very glad that I didn’t.
Nothing else I’ve done in life has required so much for such an uncertain payoff. Maybe, one day, all the hours of writing and reading and thinking (and rewriting and rereading and rethinking) will give me the novel I’ve dreamed of writing. Maybe not. But I still do it. I keep working. It is an act of faith—foolish and fearless, a little arrogant, and endlessly hopeful. As it should be. As it must be.
Amber Elias is an attorney and a writer. Her novel, The Evergreen Fire is the story of a morally compromised attorney and her efforts to vindicate a juvenile offender. It examines the fragility of justice and the people who strive to uphold it. She is also a new mother and maintains a shameless mom blog at everydayelias.blogspot.com.