“So how did you know what you were good at, as a writer?”
I thought for a moment about Monica’s question, while Jackie looked at me intently. We sat gathered for our March writing workshop and had finished discussing chapters 3 and 4 of my memoir-in-progress. I thought back to when I first really thought of myself as a writer.
I told her, “I think I’ve best known my talents as a writer when people I’ve respected have told me I did a good piece of writing.”
I thought back to a run-in with Sister Therese at Notre Dame’s student center. The little woman with glasses and frizzy gray hair had a big grin when she saw senior me. She said, “Chris, I saw your column today in The Observer, and I just wanted to say that you have such a gift as a writer.”
“Oh, thanks, Sister! That’s so nice of you!”
“No, really,” she said. Her grin dropped a bit, and her eyebrows furrowed in seriousness. “You really do have a gift.”
At the time, I was trying to decide whether or not to keep my bi-weekly column in the campus paper. I was graduating in the spring, and it seemed like it was one of those things you should let go of with graduation. But The Observer really wanted columnists, and they had asked me to keep it.
I knew Sister Therese meant what she said. She was once the adviser for a senior theology major’s capstone thesis. The student would be going to seminary the next year, and in one of their advising sessions she had asked him what kind of seminary he would be going to after graduation.
“Diocesan,” he told her.
“Oh, good,” she said. I can imagine her looking down at his paper while she told him in a detached but gentle tone, “Diocesan priests don’t have to be philosophers.” At least, that was the version of the story told me by the now-priest.
I realize now that I’ve only known my strengths as a writer through my readers. I started writing the memoir after a conversation with Mary about the fiction and poetry I had submitted to our writing group. She told me something along the lines of, “Yes, those were all good. But your best writing comes out of personal essays. I was reading some of what you sent me for a possible memoir, and I kept thinking, ‘Yes! This is what Chris should be writing!’” I love her writing, and I knew that she only gave compliments when she meant them. So I decided to pursue the memoir.
As in writing, so also in life. I often think that we need our friends, families, and mentors to help us understand our strengths. The external validation is the beginning of internal confidence, since our friends often help us to see what we overlook in ourselves, or what we hesitate to see. Almost every member of my writing group has submitted a piece which he or she thought was mediocre but which we all found fascinating! And through the editing process, we’ve helped each other see not only the weaknesses in our writing, but our strengths as well. Members have discovered how they excel in little vignettes, or dialogues, or ghost stories, or historical fiction.
And in the same way, friends help one another see how they have strengths as social hosts, or confidants, or reliable companions. Our “love language” is something we understand most when we hear others respond to and reflect on how they have experienced love from us.
At the same time, we can’t only praise one another. Hannah Gergen wrote in Poets and Writers that the love of a manuscript is the sort of love that
“A teacher has for a student or a critic for an artist. It’s the kind of love that makes you want to bring out the best in a particular piece of writing, a love that helps you to see what is best, even if that means delivering the unpleasant news that an entire character arc needs to be rethought or that a plot point isn’t ringing true. You’re not doing yourself or your group members any favors by merely praising their work. Your goal is to provide them with an extra set of eyes and ears, so you can help them to perceive the gaps that exist between their intended vision and what they’ve actually created on the page. By the same token, you need to feel as if your fellow writing group members are people who can help you to understand your own work better and push you to achieve more.”
Without my writing group, I can only push myself so far. But I think friendship is like this as well. We need friends, so that we can grow as persons, because our friendships help us to see and accept both our strengths and our weaknesses. The more they come to know us, and the more history we’ve shared, the better they can analyze the manuscripts of our lives and help us to see where we’ve failed and succeeded. We all need editors.
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.