Back when she was Carol Lynch and I was Lisa Torcasso, before married names reversed our alphabetical order, making her a Williams and bumping her to the rear of the alphabet while I, as a new Downing, leaped forward, we briefly shared a BYU ward. She may not recall this because we didn’t interact much, but I remember Carol Lynch clearly for a few reasons. She knew sign language, which I thought was very cool; she had long blonde hair, which I thought was very beautiful; and she was very bold about her ambition: Carol would graduate and become a writer. It was this last point that cemented her and her name in my mind because we shared that drive in common, though I was much less free, less confident, in declaring it out loud. I worried that my lack of confidence indicated a lack of ability and I very much admired her attitude. And yet, Carol’s self-assurance intimidated me, so much so that, in the only conversation I recall us ever having about writing, I, in my nervousness, accidentally made a declaration of belief that became a guiding light.
But, Dear Reader, before I attempt to recount that conversation, I must confess I make no claim to accurately represent Carol’s feelings, ideas, or opinions, either of yesteryear or now. I attempted to write this post by leaving out her name, but it just felt awkward. Please understand that I haven’t spoken with Carol Lynch Williams in decades and, when we shared ward boundaries, we didn’t even live in the same apartment complex. We were mere acquaintances. I offer only my skewed remembrance on a conversation that became a turning point for me, the moment I inadvertently began to lose my condescending attitudes about literature, readers, and writers. It’s been on my mind so I share it with you.
Basically the conversation proceeded thusly. I found myself standing with Carol in the hallway before Relief Society began. I bravely told her that I, too, wanted to become a writer. She asked me who my favorite authors were, and being nervous and, as I confessed, intimidated by her, I didn’t offer much of an answer. Honestly, at the time, I didn’t focus on authors, but on books. I could’ve answered what my favorite titles were, but when she threw the author question at me, I stammered, saying something like, “I like too many to isolate a favorite.” Actually, that’s probably a generous recantation of what I said. It’s more likely I answered, “Oh, I like them all.” I was that nervous. She then spewed out the classic list of great American authors, naming her preference for Flannery O’Connor and someone else, though I don’t recall precisely who that would’ve been. What I do remember is feeling like an idiot. I realized instantly she’d given a much better, more writerly, way smarter answer than I had. If I’d felt intimidated going into our conversation, I was downright emotionally destroyed by now. But I wasn’t going to let on. Next she very patiently and politely asked what I like to write.
Once again, I fumbled for an answer. In truth, I wasn’t sure what she was asking, so I responded that I like to write fiction. She pressed for more clarity and, stammering under the pressure, I said that it didn’t matter much to me precisely what kind of fiction I wrote. Keep in mind who I was back then: I was a literati-in-training. The only kind of fiction that ever filled my brain was literary, was art, the kind of story that begged scholarly analysis. So no, I didn’t care what “kind” of fiction I wrote—but it would be literary. Of course. Duh. What did I care if my stories were the “kind” about boys at a swimming hole, or women in the grocery store, or couples on the brink of divorce? Such was my thinking.
Of course, I knew by Carol’s flummoxed expression that I had answered her question all wrong. I was making myself look foolish in the eyes of the one ward member with whom I’d most like to strike up a friendship. I wanted to crawl under a rock. How could I fix this?
One of the strangest things about me is that I often don’t know when to cut bait, accept surrender, and go home. I do it less now that I’m older, but sometimes I lead my brain with my mouth. In other words, I start talking until I talk myself into something. That’s what I did with Carol. Too proud (and stupid) to admit I was nervous and intimidated by her and had screwed up my answers, I pressed forward verbally, trying to talk my answer into being acceptable. In so doing, I ended up making a statement I’d spend 30 years living by even though, in my mind, it was utter rubbish.
I listened to myself argue that a “good” writer is a writer who can write anything and write it convincingly. A good writer can, yes, write a Harlequin that satisfies any fan of the popular series, and then turn around and write a short story that wins a Pushcart Prize. A good writer can write a campy mystery and then, the next day, a lyric poem, or ad copy that sells a millions toasters. The words coming out of my mouth had the strange ring of truth to them, even if I didn’t believe a single word of it. Still, what I said sounded good, felt shocking, and based on Carol’s expression, may have seemed as crazy to her English major sensibilities as it did to mine. After all, good writing wins awards and scholarly attention. The rest is dross. To say an ad writer is as good a writer as a publishing writer of literary fiction? Ridiculous. Bring on the straight jacket.
It was a good thing Carol didn’t bother to argue back. Perhaps she deemed me a hopeless case. I suppose it’s possible she was equally unsure what to say as I had been moments before. I know I was as astounded to hear myself say what I was saying as she seemed to be hearing me say it. In fact, my whole spiel was a conversation stopper. I couldn’t have argued in support of what I said because I didn’t believe it.
But I had said it and I couldn’t take it back. I also couldn’t defend it so from then on, I tended to avoid conversing with Carol about literature, a thing I’ve always regretted. Instead, I had imaginary conversations with myself in which I evaluated the veracity of the statement that a “good” writer could write anything s/he set out to write. The more I thought about it, the more accurate it seemed to me. Certainly, a capable writer should be able to write anything. A good writer should be a disciplined professional, skilled at the craft, who has an acute sense of audience. This epiphany chipped away my arrogance.
I’ve heard it argued, however, that successful writers are writers who learn to focus on one particular kind of writing and stick to it so that they become not only proficient, but exceptional. I can think of many, many writers who have succeeded in more than one category, but it does seem to me that most of these writers made their name through consistency, only branching into other genres or forms after they achieved publication success in one particular category/genre. Either way, I’d classify anyone “good” who succeeds at any type of writing. Period.
Once I accepted this, it seemed my world opened. I learned to like diversity in reading material. I re-learned reading for pleasure. Maybe it’s true that some types of my writing are more successful than others. Maybe that means I’m not “good” yet. Or maybe it means I’m “good” but need to practice more. Maybe it means I should focus only on writing one kind of story. Maybe it means I still don’t know what good writers write. Regardless, that single conversation with a young writer who went on to write beautiful Young Adult novels changed me. I hope Carol can forgive me for invoking her name as I reminisce about a moment that began the cultivation of who would I would become as a writer and editor.