On My Calling

When my high school choir teacher told me that I’d never have a ‘solo voice’, I gave up singing.

There have been times in my life when I’ve resented her for such harsh criticism, but mostly, I wonder what would have happened if I’d handled that criticism differently. Some days I wish I’d laughed in her face. Other days I just wish that I could have turned her discouraging words into the motivation I needed to succeed and improve. But I didn’t. College rolled around and I just… stopped pursuing it.

Solo singing isn’t the only thing I’ve given up on. When I was told that I’m too tall to make a decent ballerina, I quit dancing. And a few years later, my violin instructor told me I didn’t have the dedication to become a truly talented violinist, so I stopped taking those lessons, too. The time commitment and the criticism didn’t seem worth my effort or attention. If I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t good enough. And that was that.

This probably says a lot of things about me –  maybe that I’m easily discouraged, that I put too much confidence in what my superiors say to me, or that I don’t have enough faith in myself. I’ve certainly embodied each of those statements many times in my life. Sometimes I wish that I had given more of my energy toward improving certain skills. If I hadn’t quit dancing 12 years ago, where would I be today? Maybe I could have become a doctor, if only I’d paid more attention in elementary school math class. Ultimately, asking myself those things is futile. The criticism came, and I responded to it – by calling it quits.

Often, I think of what a little encouragement from my instructors could have done for me. If I’d been told that hours of practice would make me a good ballerina, would I have done it? If I had been encouraged to practice the violin more frequently, would I have been inspired to listen? Each time I mull over these questions, I arrive at the same conclusion: probably not.

The thing is, those people were all right about me.

It’s not that they honed in on some inherent inability of mine to become a world-renowned ballerina, because that’s absurd. I could have done it, if I’d wanted to. The truth of the matter is that I didn’t.

When each of those three women told me that I couldn’t excel in their fields, I gave up. I made their words true by deciding that it wasn’t worth it to perfect the skills it would take to succeed. If my instructors were testing me, as I’ve often thought they were, I definitely failed. They said I didn’t have what it would take, and I agreed. Confirming their judgments of me is what made those assumptions a reality. Self-fulfilling prophecy and the like. If any of those activities had been right for me, I know without a doubt that I would have responded differently.

In the weeks (months?) since my first post on this blog, as I’ve tried to think of something to share with you, I’ve been considering my career as a writer. Although brief (spanning only two years), the time that I’ve been working as a journalist has been the most rewarding, challenging, and fascinating time of my life. Writing is more than just a career choice or a pass-time, for me. It’s my most prolific form of expression, my most reliable means of therapy, and my favorite thing about myself.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been criticized.

In the spring of my senior year of high school, two months into my internship at the magazine for which I currently work, I was given my first writing assignment. I did little in the weeks leading up to my deadline besides carefully compose each and every sentence of those 350 words. I submitted the story to my boss and waited anxiously to see it appear in the magazine.

It didn’t.

I was having a particularly horrible day about a week later, when my boss approached me and asked me to meet with him in his office. “We pride ourselves on being a publication with excellent writing and photography,” he began, and my heart sank.

“Your writing,” he said without further preamble, “was really not good.”

He had printed a copy of my article, and pointed out to me the things I had done wrong. By the time he was finished, that piece of paper was practically shredded with quick little pen marks. Delete a sentence here. Replace a word there. This is too subjective. Where’s the substance?

I’ve always been quick to cry, even if I’m not really all that upset, so when my boss emerged from his office a few minutes later, he found me sniffling through tears. “How are you today?” he asked, looking wisely over his glasses and a mug of fresh coffee.

I told him that I wasn’t having the greatest day, courtesy of high school and, well, him. He nodded knowingly, “Most people spend the rest of their lives trying to get over the things that happen to them in high school.” He cracked open a fortune cookie from his lunch as we talked and examined the wisdom it gave him critically. I was reminded vividly of Albus Dumbledore eating lemon drops. “As for the rest,” he said. “I think that I got your fortune by mistake.”

You will succeed at whatever you wish, it said.

Encouragement from a boss, or mentor, or instructor, goes a long way. It helps offset the harsh words of criticism that are necessary to turn a mediocre singer, dancer, or writer, into a great one. But even that encouragement isn’t everything.

You have to want it.

Even today, I am by no means a great writer. Honing and perfecting a skill is a lifetime undertaking. It requires determination, self-reflection, and resilience. I realize this. And even though I’ve been devastated by criticism, I’m only more determined to become a better writer. I suppose you could say that I’ve found my calling.

I’m learning every day. Each time I submit a story to the magazine, my editor sits me down to discuss what I could have done differently. There are usually a lot of suggestions. Sometimes, I’m asked to rewrite a few sections that didn’t quite make the mark. Sometimes, I barely recognize the story I wrote after it goes through editing. Every once in a while, I’m told I did a really great job. That’s particularly rewarding. Right now, in this moment, I’m not a great writer. But I’m happy to continue on in the hopes that someday, I could be.

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