People will probably find it difficult to believe that in grade school I was shy. I was something of a clown, but when it came to any kind of situation in which I had to speak up, I would freeze. For some reason my ninth grade teacher, Mrs. Kelly, seemed to understand that I wanted to be able to open up. When it was time to do the class play, she cast me as the witch—a role I loved, because I got to wear a disguise—a hat and a black cape and got to emote wildly.
Then she did something that changed my life. She made an assignment in which everyone was to write a story. It could be about anything. I wrote a corny story based on a popular song. A few days after we turned in our stories, she announced to the class that she had liked all of them, but there was one in particular that she had thought everyone would enjoy, and she was going to read it aloud. She said she wasn’t going to tell who wrote it until after she read it. I knew it was my story. And it was.
I will never forget the feeling of excitement and terror combined as I listened to the story through someone else’s voice and heard the “wow” comments of my classmates. I’m sure the story was silly, but the important thing was that it had come from my imagination—and that people enjoyed it, just as I had enjoyed so many things I had read.
Along my writing journey I received a lot of encouragement from teachers, peers, and mentors. And one thing I learned is that you can never be too encouraging. I have known a few budding writers who were very confident of their skills and talent—and sometimes they were even right! But most novice writers need all the encouragement they can get. In writers’ groups or classes, the number one rule should always be “be encouraging; be kind.” That doesn’t mean to pretend a piece of writing is perfect. But the “critique sandwich” is the best critique advice I ever got. Give someone honest feedback, with the bad news sandwiched between two compliments.
In the case of my ninth grade teacher, I’m sure she had some suggestions for improvement, but I don’t remember what they were. I just remember her warm smile of encouragement when she said my name after she read the story.