Each year I write my students a letter of introduction that I read to them on the first day. Their first homework is to write me a letter back. This is my 11th letter, and one I’m proud of. Enjoy.
August 23, 2017
I’m getting comfortable with failure. Failure is the wrong word, though. Failure is so final, it denotes an ending with nothing beyond it. Struggle is the word I prefer. Struggle isn’t over; struggle can continue; struggle keeps trying. So, I will say that I’m getting comfortable with struggle. Except comfortable is also the wrong word. Struggle is never comfortable or easy. But I’m getting better at struggle, at not letting struggle equal failure.
I’m getting better at struggle by being a writer. I’ve written two novels (which add up to 130,000 words, not counting all the words I cut or rewrote) and 5, 6, or 7 picture books—fewer words, but more agony over each one. And I’ve submitted my writing to strangers 400 times. I copy the email address and I click send, hoping I didn’t miss a typo, didn’t misspell the recipient’s name or (gag!) my own.
The letter a writer sends out with her sample pages is called a query. Query, which shares a root with inquire and question. I am asking a question: do you like this? Do you want to help me make this into paper and ink that will be dog-eared and underlined, carried in backpacks, passed from hand to hand?
What I’m really asking is, “Is this any good?”
But I write cool, collected query letters.
“I think you might like this…”
“I’ve attached the first ten pages…”
“I’d be happy to send the full manuscript…”
I try not to let my longing show through in these emails, like love letters stripped of their love. I don’t tell them that I’ve sent them a piece of my soul, hours and hours and hours spent clicking away at my desk in a closet, during babies’ naps or after bedtime kisses.
I sign my letters “Sincerely,” but “Lovingly” is a better fit. I’m sending the child of my brain in 0s and 1s across the air, flashes of light in fiber optic cables; sending a signal that I hope will materialize in the mind of the reader, and tell a story they didn’t know they wanted to hear.
I told a friend about waiting months for a response to arrive. She said, “It’s teaching you to hold things lightly.” Perhaps that’s it. In front of the blank page I don’t hold back, I jump Geronimo off of outline bridges into streams of Times New Roman. But then I release my words into the world accepting that maybe no one will read them, or the ones that do won’t like them.
But I keep thinking of that lottery slogan, “You can’t win if you don’t play,” and playing in this case means making something out of nothing and then accepting that that something might truly be nothing, nothing I can control, so something only for me. Maybe?
I wonder if you, dear students, add up all the quizzes and the tests and the papers, the rewrites and the early help sessions, the red pen slashes, the “come see me’s” and the “this needs more work.” Have you reached 400? Double that? We ask you each day to put some part of you on the page or the board and we tell you what didn’t work and maybe what did. So who am I to be sad or discouraged? Perhaps I’ve just gotten too far away from being a student, I’ve forgotten how to struggle and continue, as you do each day.
Because there’s no way from here to there without going through this. No shortcuts. You have to cut through the red pen and the paper with the machete of your mind. Hack a path, all on your own.
But you, you’ve got me. I’m just ahead of you, I’ve made it through this particular jungle and I’ve sketched a map that will help me to help you. Sometimes maybe you can see me and sometimes you can’t, and you’ll wonder what I know anyway. Maybe you’d be better just to set down and quit struggling. You’ve had to double back, you’ve hit dead-ends, maybe none of this is worth it.
But, I know. I know that you will make it. I know this even when you doubt. I believe when you won’t. If you will just keep swinging the blade, inquiring of the universe, asking the question again and again.
What I want is for you to be willing to struggle. Don’t ask me to lie to you and just tell you that you’ve arrived, that you don’t need to go any further. Don’t ask me to tell you that the struggle is over. Maybe you hope you’re different, that you got lucky and landed right near the end and soon you’ll get to rest.
“Oh baby,” (I croon in the voice of Billie Holiday) “there is no rest.” But you’re moving forward, I promise. Sometimes it’s slow, and sometimes it’s fast. Sometimes you’re even backtracking. But sometimes you gotta go back to move forward and I won’t quit you if you don’t quit yourself.
Who am I anyway? I’m Mrs. Griswold. I’ll be your struggle guru teacher this year and this is my lucky 7th year at Harpeth Hall—that must be good omen. I have three kids whose pictures dot my bulletin board. I have an old dog who’s afraid of thunder, 6 chickens, and I keep bees in my backyard. I’m a slow runner, but I like to do it. I’m a theater major who now performs for audiences of 16 and gets to analyze plays every year.
Before I lived in Nashville, I lived in New York City. Before that, London and Cleveland. Back even further I lived in Caracas, Venezuela from 7th grade to 12th, and Mexico City for 5th and 6th grade. I speak Spanish fluently and enough Portuguese to have conversations in the present tense. Until age 10 I lived in Cincinnati. So where am I from? The answer is complicated but I’m happy to call Nashville home now.
Before we begin, would you write me a letter? Tell me about who you are. What are you struggling with? How does struggle feel to you? Where are you going? How can I help you? What do you love?