Want to know the single worst sentence I've ever written?
“Since the dawn of time, man has struggled.”
That's how I began the first paper I wrote for my 11th grade AP English Lit class. The teacher had extensively schooled us on how she wanted a paper to be written. From note-taking to synopsizing to outlining to the proper way to construct a sentence, I thought I had all the right tools. She wanted the paper to begin with an opening statement that spoke to the reader, that would be their gateway into the ensuing arguments and logical progression of facts. And I was pretty proud of that first sentence, because... it's true. Inarguable. PURE GENIUS. Every human can relate!
And so, when we got that first paper back, I expected what I always expected: An A+ and a smiley face. Maybe some compliments, like “Great point!” or “Well written!”
Instead, I got a 59.
The first 59 of my straight-A school career.
There was so much red ink on that paper that I'm surprised it didn't stain my hands permanently.
At first, I was in denial. Uh, this can't be right. Surely she added it up wrong? *does math* Uh. Nope.
Then I got angry. How dare she? Every other teacher had swooned at my papers; why did she think she was any different? Who did she think she was?
Next came bargaining. Could I get some extra credit? Bump it up to a C? Something?!
Depression followed. I was now a person who got 59s. I couldn't write a decent paper. I wasn't as smart as I thought I was. I sucked at English—my native language. My life was going down the toilet.
Basically, I went through the first four stages of grief... all in about five minutes.
Lastly, of course, comes acceptance. And acceptance is the hardest part.
Fortunately, the entire class had the same problem, and the teacher was there to help us get through to the other side of the process. I had to accept the truth: there was nothing wrong with me as a person, a student, or a writer. There was something wrong with how I wrote papers, and this teacher was here to set me straight. That was the whole point of the seemingly endless notes, the hasty slashes, the scribbled corrections, the editing marks I didn't yet understand.
It was all there to make me a better writer.
That teacher gave me several great gifts that year, but the first one was the chance to start over and completely redo the paper. Armed with new knowledge, I felt in charge of my writing and my destiny, empowered to communicate and energized to succeed. Instead of feeling smug and superior, I felt humble and eager to learn. I can't remember the first sentence of my redo, but I got a 93.
I forgot most of this lesson until I got my first edit letter as a novelist (at age 33) and instantly catapulted myself right back into the stages of grief as if I had learned nothing in 11th grade English. As if, because I was an adult who had written a book and gotten an agent, I should have automatically been showered with roses and chocolate and praise. As if just because I had leveled up once, there were no more levels to which I had to climb.
Ha freakin' ha, y'all.
There's always another level. There's always something to learn. And five published books later, I still have to clear some mental space for each edit letter, knowing that I'll follow the predictable pattern of the stages of grief, which now also requires a big plate of beignets or a cupcake to wash down the denial, anger, bargaining, and depression.
But once I turn the corner to acceptance, I relish that same swoop of energy and excitement, when I know in my bones that I'm armed with all the tools I need to make my story sing. When I feel that I have the power to be great, and all I need to get there are time on task and tenacity.
The theme of my first book? Easy things are worth nothing.
And I know this because, since the dawn of time, man has always struggled. And that's okay.