When I was twenty-five, I took a fiction writing workshop in Boston. The thirty-something instructor's debut story had just been published in the Atlantic Monthly, back when they printed fiction on a regular basis. This was not the type of man who held hands and wiped noses when it came time for critiques. While today I call him an honest and insightful mentor, eight years ago I wanted to kick his ass all over the Boston Common.
The evening my story was up for evaluation I sat quietly and listened to my peers voice strong words of encouragement and sensitive suggestions for improvement. As the half-circle was workshopping my piece, the instructor (we'll call him Tom) was driving his red pen deep into my manuscript, X-ing out paragraphs, entire pages no less, as the woman next to me praised my use of detail and knack for dialogue. When it came time for Tom to make his closing comments he looked exhausted, glaring at me like I'd offended him personally, speaking with scorn as he read aloud (I hate when they do that) my myriad mistakes—the unjustified ending, scene avoidance, amateur grandiosity, lacking movement, etc. The way he attacked my stupid little story you'd think I'd made a pass at his wife and succeeded.
I darted out of there, stomping back to my apartment in Beacon Hill like a wronged child. For days I stewed, cursing him as I jogged along the Charles River, rehearsing conversations where I told him off, put him in his place. What did he know, Mr. Atlantic Monthly, Mr. Stegner Fellowship? Didn't he realize I got A's in college creative-writing classes, that I drank and smoked like a real writer? This self-centered rage lasted for weeks until it found a nice home inside my overpopulated Resentment Chamber, just next to the Envy Compartment. Then I threw that short story away, because revision wasn't yet in my lexicon. Revision was for suckers, for those who couldn't get it right the first time. So I swore off fiction for good, fully embracing my fate in the financial-services industry.
Less than a year later I'm back again, signed on for another workshop with the same organization, different teacher. Having spent a week in Florida the month prior, I'd come away with a strange story that really excited me, a piece with a life of its own, characters who didn't want my heavy-handed input every step of the way. So the evening I'm due for a critique on this submission I learn Tom will be filling in for our regular instructor, who was tending to a family emergency. The blood was rushing, my fists clenched. In class, many asked what's at stake, while others wondered if an elderly woman would really wear high heels with jeans. And while Tom still slashed red X's though my prose as the group offered their opinion, he didn't display the same contempt-filled grimace in the face of my manuscript. After student evaluations were complete, he held up my story and announced it was flawed, that there were some serious sequence issues, that the ending was all wrong, etc. Recording his comments, I was ready yet again to throw in the towel. "But," he continued, his tone softening, "I think you've got something here, Mike." I could have cried in his arms.
In 2000 that story was featured in New Letters. It was my debut publication. I was paid $45.00; a Xerox copy of that check is still filed amongst the hundreds of rejection letters I've amassed over the years. So what was different this time? My attitude, for one, the courage to face this story the morning after a critique—the very key to any success I've enjoyed. I scrutinized that story silly, obsessed over it, lived in it. I'd become willing, albeit reluctantly, to revise, to do the work required. Tom's methods had infuriated me, but that was my problem. Now I consider myself very lucky, even blessed to have had an instructor of his caliber. As corny as it sounds, he shaped me. In spirit, Tom taught me when to kill my darlings, how to see through my self-serving narratives, where to find the truth in fiction. By the sheer conviction of his comments I learned the vital necessity of keeping my ego at bay, to allow my characters (not me) to determine the story. After all, it belongs to them; it's theirs. Only when I achieve that sense of separation do my stories take flight, do I make it into print. And while I no longer smoke cigarettes in dark bars, I have emerged as a relentless practitioner of revision, and this has enabled me to become that real writer, passing on that giant red X to others.