Could I write something that stirred up a Great Idea? That suggested an answer to a Great Question? That could change the reader into someone he/she hadn’t been before reading my work?
Graduation approached. I asked one of my professors – one I respected a lot – if I had enough talent to pursue writing as a career. He told me that I could write well enough, but as yet had nothing to say. He recommended waiting a few years. I knew perfectly well that my understanding of life wasn’t sufficient. But I spent half a year trying to prove him wrong. I didn’t particularly like slick ladies’ magazines, but they were the one of the places that published short stories. I couldn’t hope to complete with Salinger in the New Yorker, and my fellow creative writing majors and I scorned Pearl Buck for publishing in the Ladies Home Journal. (I cringe to remember this!) But I figured none of the other Creative Writing majors would know, so I tried writing and submitting short stories to the Journal and other women’s magazines that published fiction. They were unimpressed.
So I turned to the world I’d discovered – the world of ideas, and did post graduate work in philosophy, which, as it turns out, I was very good at. Gotta love that Socrates!
I worked part-time at a nearby library, too, which reminds me that it’s always possible that even the least detail can work to your advantage. My job was at Haverford College, a Quaker college, and I learned a lot about Quakers by default – and used what I’d found to give the character of Elizabeth Warden (This the House) an individuality quite different from most women in the late 1700’s. Or at any other time, for that matter.
I should make mention of Potts’ Plots, too, a detail that turned out to be quite valuable. We Creative Writing majors didn’t just write short stories. We did journalism and poetry and playwriting. Now that was fun! Professor Potts was the teacher, a benign older gentleman who was willing to lend a hand to students in the new major. Of course we dubbed it “Potts’ Plots” and found that we were awful at writing plays. Yet it was instructive, and I recommend all aspiring writers of give it a try because your characters can let the audience know how they are reacting to whatever crisis is at hand only by their actions and tone of voice (which you need to include in the directions). Likewise, they move around according to those directions, and as the author, you’re watching their every move to see if it makes sense. A very important part of writing is that you don’t tell the reader what the character thinks, you communicate it by gestures, actions, and dialogue. It makes for a much stronger style. So Professor Potts actually contributed a lot to my “skill set”.
Meanwhile, having failed as a writer, being too young to be a philosopher, I slogged along at the library until the summer I went windjamming on Nantucket Sound.