My students still don’t know what they will never be. Their hope is so bright I can almost see it. I used to value the truth of whether this student or that one would achieve the desired thing. I don’t value that truth anymore as much as I value their untested hope. I don’t care that one in two hundred of them will ever become what they feel they must become. I care only that I am able to witness their faith in what’s coming next.”
Sarah Manguso in “Ongoingness.”
I remember when I first started out writing. I deeply needed someone to tell me I had talent. That I would make it. I wanted to be that one in two hundred.
After all, I was trying to do something improbable and hopelessly romantic—be a writer. A “real” writer. One with published books. Good books that maybe made a difference. Or were, at least, read with appreciation. I wasn’t interested in scribbling away in my garret with no concern for worldly success. A successful artist—that’s what I wanted to be.
Now, I also teach writing. And, although, Sarah Manguso doesn’t spell out what kind of students she has, I’m betting she teaches aspiring authors, too. The thing about teaching writing is it’s hard to not feel a bit like a fraud. As Manguso knows, I know that many of my students won’t “become what they feel they must become.”
So are writing teachers fostering false hope?
We are fostering hope. But is it false?
I’ve come to have a somewhat Darwinian appreciation of the process. Many must try. A few will make it. Like tadpoles becoming frogs. Nature seems to need lots of raw material to draw the few from.
I’m one of those tadpoles, too. I didn’t become quite the frog I dreamed of. But unlike nature, it’s possible to become a partial frog and know you’ve achieved something.
Or here’s another way to look at it. The way that I think Manguso means: that there is value in the hope itself. It’s important and meaningful to have that in your life. To have a dream and go after it. I’m lucky no one told me that I’d make it or not make it.
I had to fall back on my own motivations and my own terms of success. And that’s really the only way it can be. How badly do you want it? How hard are you willing to try? How much of a chance can you take?
I don’t know many people who regret having tried. There is the fear that you will feel like a fool. You’ll have wasted your time. But I can’t think of anyone I know who feels that way. In an illustrated essay, reproduced on Brainpickings, Debbie Millman talks about facing the choice to try.
And she talks about deciding later in life to take the chance. To try. To hope. To not, as she puts it “determine what was impossible before it was even possible.”
At the least, I can help a student find out about the possible.
So these days, like Manguso, although I’ll do everything I can to help them, I don’t worry as much about whether or not my students will make it. I’m in awe of them trying. The guts it takes, the honing of their skills, the camaraderie they develop, the furthering of the art itself that they represent. I know that some will completely drop this dream. Some will become appreciators. Some will become patrons. Some will redefine success until it matches what they’ve achieved. Some will become successful only to find that they preferred the dream to the reality. Some will become what they feel they must become.
I don’t think any will lose for the trying.