Sitting across a table from me is a sullen teenaged boy. Last week I read and gingerly marked (with pencil) the first chapter of what he believes is the next great science fiction novel. Now he's sitting here, clutching his pages, staring at me.
"Criticism is hard for writers," I say finally.
"No," he answers. "Criticism is fine--criticism means all the positive things that can help you get better. But when it's negative--what you did--it's an insult."
I am flabbergasted and think to myself, 'oh you poor boy.' I think of all the pencil-marked pages I have stacked in my bookcase in the corner of my living room, all the slash-marks through whole pages that I wrote with great heart and hope. I think of the years--the almost full decade of this process that has been far more negative than positive, at least from the criticism's point of view, and my heart breaks for him. He doesn't know yet that writing means having to wear a rubberized, fire-proof, bullet-proof suit, so that when the criticism comes, and it pierces, your heart is protected so you aren't killed by it. It means trusting that the person who criticizes knows the difference between your words and your person, and would NEVER equate the two, even if you do. And trusting that their 'help,' even when it hurts so much you think you can't go on, will reap the harvest you desire, and that it will turn you into something--the writer!--you dreamed of being but didn't quite know you could be. He doesn't know this yet.
He thinks that it's supposed to be easy, this writing stuff.
He doesn't know that every time it doesn't go this way, and someone says, "You're still working on that same book?" or"Is the book published yet?"it can stab so much it takes your breath away, because after all, isn't it what I want--what I crave--as much as any dream I've had my whole life, and for all this time, it's been the carrot, just out there, held right out there, but every time I think I get to touch it, I hear, "Not yet, make a few more changes. Take this out, put this in." But I smile and try to answer as if I haven't had to answer forty-thousand other times, because after all, I'm the one 'author' they know, even though I don't dare call myself that--not yet anyway, but please God, soon...
He doesn't know these things. He thinks he can just sit at his computer and write a story, that is, for all that not really a story at all, just a summary of a story. Shoot, I was so gentle with him, I didn't even tell him, I couldn't bear to. He's only a kid, after all. A scared kid with a dream. So, let him write. Let him dream.
When it comes down to it, I'm still just a kid with a dream too. I must be. I still have the dream. And, as someone reminded me last fall when I was in a very low--I'm going to stop!--moment, I still find joy in the writing. And so it continues.