My triumphant return to Dover, Indiana

To follow up on my last post, I didn’t get any reading time that Sunday, as I’d planned.

No. No, I had to sort through piles of receipts looking for writing expenses.

There’s no way to make that sound sexy, except that I did find a receipt for something for work, which meant that I got to turn in a 7-month-old receipt. And fill out the exception form for the 90-day rule…

O, the paperwork you have to do to get your $28 back from The Man.

In other news, I did indeed return to the scene of the crime and speak to a group of smartypants juniors at my high school. The whole experience couldn’t have been more lovely, and I only had a small heart attack when I realized I’d gone to school with some of these kids’ parents. I got a (possibly unwarranted) standing ovation that I almost didn’t see because of all the stage lighting, and they laughed at the right places. Public speaking isn’t my favorite thing ever (mentioned in the speech, actually), but I’m glad I did it, and had a great time seeing some former teachers and MY ENTIRE FAMILY. Who might have led the standing O, now that I think about it.

I won’t post the entire speech, because it was written for a very specific audience and a very specific moment. The full speech really belongs to them. But a portion of it has some usefulness (I think) to beginning writers. So here you are. An excerpt, after I’ve talked a bit about the main activity of the Honors Society while I was a member, tutoring fellow students.

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…Tutoring with the Honor Society was one of the ways I gained confidence in myself. Years ago, when I was the kid crossing this stage, confidence was something I didn’t have much of. I thought that someday I would have all the confidence in the world.
I have bad news for you students. There’s only about a cup and a half of confidence for the whole world to share, and like most of the things that the whole world has to share, a few horde it away from the many. The rest of us get doubt, of which there is plenty to go around. Which means I don’t have to tell you about it. You already have some, and will have more as you begin to make decisions about your life after graduation.
As a writer, I get to think a lot about doubt. More than the average bear, I mean, because writers get a hundred times their fare share. Just saying the catch-all word “writers” and including myself, it takes a Herculean effort not to qualify myself. I’m a writer, but not full-time, and I don’t have a book published yet, but I have some lovely short stories published and maybe someday—
Do you hear that? Doubt.
Since leaving high school in 1991, I’ve earned three college degrees, two of them master’s degrees, held steady employment with increasing levels of responsibility, moved to a great city, made excellent friends, married happily, published some short stories I still like and won some awards and yet there’s always something to doubt.
That’s because doubt isn’t something you conquer entirely. I think bouts of superheroism are possible, though, if you can stuff doubt back into its commercial packaging and put it away for a bit. How do you do that? You don’t all want to be writers, but you have a dream hidden away that gives you opportunity to doubt its likelihood. Everyone does, and not just the seventeen-year-olds. How do you squish doubt down long enough to leap over it? How do I, for instance, put away crippling self-doubt to take words I’ve written for myself and publish them in places where even the exchange student I tutored in high school has access to them?
A few tips.
Number one: Talk the talk. From a very early age, my parents said they didn’t know how we’d get there, but my sister and I would go to college. Now, nothing in our family’s history would have predicted that outcome, but you know what? We did. True to my parents’ word, my sister and I both went to and graduated from college, the first but thankfully not last people in our family to do so. When I think about what made that possible, we get pretty close to the line between positive thinking and voodoo. By talking about the future in a way that left no room for doubt, no doubt crept in.

In my first week as a student in a creative writing MFA program many years later, one of my professors told us to start calling ourselves writers. If we didn’t, who else would? The caveat, of course, is that you also have to write something. But you don’t have to be publishing, you see. All very sneaky. But yet again, there is magic in saying things aloud. There’s a saying in the writing community: Talking about writing isn’t writing. So you’ll need to walk the walk, as well. If I wanted to call myself a writer, hadn’t I better go write something?
Tip number two: Just say yes. Doubt is skinny. It can slip in sideways. When I started preparing to speak here today, it slipped in and did a choregraphed Glee-like song and dance. If, when Mrs. Parker asked me to do this, I’d stopped to think about it, I probably would have said no. Who volunteers for public speaking? Only insane people. Sorry, Mrs. Farris [my high school speech teacher, who still teaches there], but it’s true.
Insane people, by the way, have access to the full cup and a half of confidence any time they need it.
Of course, good things come from saying yes even when you want to say no. When I first decided to send some of my stories out for publication, I knew how bad my chances were. I sent them anyway. One story went to a contest I didn’t think I had a chance at. I won. That phrase—“didn’t think I had a chance”—is the vocabulary of self-doubt. No matter what your dream is, the vocabulary you need to achieve it should have more yeses than nos. Thank you, Mrs. Beck [my high school English teacher, who still teaches there], for, among many things, contributing to my vocabulary.
Number three: Be prepared to hear “no.” Writing is about 99 percent rejection. Or more. If you ever decide to pursue it, lots of people will tell you this, and you will dismiss them—until you send something out and it comes back with a form-letter rejection. Dear Sir or Madame. Maybe they couldn’t even bother sending you a full sheet of paper, so your rejection letter falls out of your return-postage envelope like a piece of trash.

It’s all well and good to say PERSEVERE. SOLDIER ON. The thing is, life—the other, non-writing parts—are full of little rejections, too. You won’t always pay for the first-class postage to have it sent to yourself. That’s the cruel world of the writer. The trick is to expect it, and have a plan B. In writing that means knowing to which publication you’ll send your story next. It means trying to talk yourself into seeing the rejection process as narrowing the field, so you’re one step closer to finding the right magazine.
In real life, this probably means applying to more than one college and keeping hold of good friends who’ll be there for you in a tough time. Expect that times will be tough, expect that you will get a “no” once in a while. Because if you’re not getting an occasional rejection, you may not be reaching far enough.
Number four: Reach for something. Writers want to share their words, but they’re a skittish bunch when it comes to public display. Like…now. That’s because we don’t want attention; we want praise.
The only reason I can share my writing with people is that, even if I can come around to being appalled by something I’ve written—you should, for instance, never again crack the spines on your high school journals—even though I don’t like some of the stories I published a few years ago, I’m never ashamed of writing. It is the thing I am.
You will need to find the thing you are. And when you do, fly that flag. We live in a pretty ironic time, when earnestness isn’t encouraged. In high school, caring about something a lot can earn you a label. You’re choosing an identity when you say that what you really love is to, say, run trivia questions with the Brain Game team…Did I not mention that in my bio?
But in college and beyond, what you find is that everyone you meet is a nerd for the thing they love. Every single person out there is a geek for something, and when you’re honest with what you love, you’ll find the community to which you belong.
We live in cynical times and we live in challenging times, too many things seeking our attention. You don’t have to care about everything, but if you care about something, and care entirely, you can forget your doubt for a while, long enough to do amazing things and to surround yourself with amazing people.
Number five: Be your amazing self. The word “unique” gets overused. Your experiences might not be unique in all the world, but don’t let doubt keep you from owning your perspective.

A few years ago I saw a call for stories for an anthology about the Mexican holiday—and here comes my one year of high school Spanish—Dia de los Muertos. We celebrated turning leaves where I came from, not the Day of the Dead. But then I realized that a small-town, Indiana non-experience of the holiday was my experience of the holiday, and a story I could write. In fact, it would be so different from everything else the anthology was likely to get, it might have a better chance of making it. The story made it into the book.

In the novel I’m writing now, the main character survives an attack that leaves her injured. What do I know about walking around with a cane? Nothing. Most of us don’t. But we have our own disabilities, real or imagined. Those old scars, some of them from high school, inform how we see the world. Better to turn them outward—into a novel, into the energy you need for your dream, or into empathy for other people and their dreams, than to cling to them or let them become something else, like regrets or grudges.
Trusting your experience, saying yes—until now we’ve been talking about circumventing doubt, fooling it into giving us five minutes of peace. But the last tip I have, number six, is different. I say Embrace the doubt. If everyone has self-doubt, at some point you just have to go with it. You could wait a long time for the cup of confidence to come your way. As a writer, I lean heavily on this quote from author and writing instructor Richard Bausch:

He said, “I don’t teach writing. I teach patience. Toughness. Stubbornness. The willingness to fail. I teach the life. The odd thing is most of the things that stop an inexperienced writer are so far from the truth as to be nearly beside the point. When you feel global doubt about your talent, that is your talent. People who have no talent don’t have any doubt.”

What does he mean? I think he means that our self-doubt gives us the chance to work on ourselves and whatever we care about. Instead of shoving doubt aside, instead of pretending we don’t feel it, we can wield it. Embracing doubt means that we give doubt the floor; we let doubt be our prosecuting attorney. Does doubt have a point to make? Can we do better? We almost always can.
As a writer, I think doubt is a double-edge sword. A good amount will keep you from publishing too soon, or from dumping your diary onto paper and calling it fiction when everyone can tell it’s not. Too much, though, and you risk never picking up a pen.
Risk doubt by embracing it. Sometimes you will get it right, and every time you do will be worth the other 99 times you didn’t.
You students have a few months of junioring to do and then it’s on to the big show, Class of 2012, and a lot of major decisions that might already be on your mind. You already have your share of the wealth of doubt. The bad news you might be getting from me by now is that—Doubt? Doesn’t go away. Your parents have some. Your grandparents probably still have some tucked away. The good news I hope you’ll take, though, is that it’s normal, and that you should probably be able to find a friend to talk to who’s just as freaked out as you are.
But no matter what you want and how far you are from making it happen, don’t let doubt keep you from beginning. A single beginning can lead in a hundred directions you couldn’t have imagined. I think it’s quite simple to imagine what will happen if you let doubt stop you.
So to you students inducted tonight into the Honor Society: Congratulations on the honors. Take advantage of the society. And I hope that something out all of this helps you as you make some of most important decisions of your life. Maybe in a few years you’ll be standing here talking to the students who follow you. If you find yourself in such a position, one thing I can tell you as a short cut: You will not be able to call your former teachers by their first names. [all my teachers who still teach there] Mr. Dale, Mr. Schlemmer, Madame Threlkeld, Mrs. Beck. Nope, just not going to happen.
And one last thing, if you get asked: Feel honored, as I do, to still feel welcome at Western Boone. Thank you.
By Published On: March 9, 2011Categories: Uncategorized