Mind & Body

Good Advice

I’ve been pretty lucky in my life: I’ve had a lot of really good advisors. Some of them were thrust into that role through obligation (my parents, for instance.) Others just took it upon themselves to offer their wisdom, whether or not I was open to hearing their words. And, of course, there have been moments when I didn’t realize how good a piece of advice was until many years down the line, when I saw that I’d made a big mistake that could have been avoided . . . if only I’d listened to someone with a little more life experience.

I think I approach this a little more graciously now. (At least, I hope I do.) Although unsolicited advice remains one of my least favorite things, I know there are times when it’s going to be helpful–so I don’t reject it out of hand. There have been moments in my life when I didn’t ask for help, but should have. And I acknowledge that it’s likely such moments will repeat themselves, because I’m really bad at asking for help. Even when I clearly need it.

That’s why I’m grateful to all the advice-givers in my life. Today I honor some of them by passing on their wise words.

Take yourself seriously.

When I was a senior in high school, I took a creative writing class with Mr. Evans. He was a notoriously difficult teacher, but I wasn’t worried. I’d been told that I was a good writer since elementary school. That was something I just knew about myself, the way I know my eyes are green. So I didn’t work particularly hard on my assignments for his class. I didn’t see why I needed to.

Mr. Evans asked me to stay after class one day. He sat down in the desk beside mine and went through a short story I’d written, pointing out places where the details contradicted themselves. He noted places where the dialogue was preachy and unrealistic.

“Do you know anyone who actually talks like that?” he asked.

I had to admit, I did not.

When we were done, he handed the story to me and said “You’re a very talented writer. I can’t be the first person who’s told you that. But you need to take yourself seriously if you want to be really good at it.”

I left his classroom knowing I could have done better and determined to do so next time.

Give yourself bigger challenges.

Another piece of advice from a writing professor, this one a Very Famous Writer (VFW). I was in my final semester at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, putting together my MFA thesis–a collection of work done over the course of my time at the university. I really wanted VFW to admire my writing, but that didn’t happen.

Instead, VFW offered this observation: “You seem to writing the same story over and over again. You need to be giving yourself bigger challenges.”

VFW was right about that, though I didn’t believe it at the time. I was too angry and hurt to hear the truth. But the next story I wrote was completely different than anything I’d done before. The next one, even more so. I gradually moved away from the story I’d written a dozen times. Looking back now, it’s fairly clear that VFW’s words had an impact I was unwilling to acknowledge. No doubt that impact pushed me toward my first novel, which bears absolutely no resemblance to anything I wrote during the Iowa years.

You either decide what job you want and go where it is, or you decide where you want to live and take the job you can find.

My dad offered this piece of advice when I was trying to decide whether or not to go back to graduate school again. I had two master’s degrees–one in literature, one in creative writing. But it had become abundantly clear that I was very unlikely find a full-time, tenure-track academic position without a Ph.D.. So the question before me was this: did I really want that job? If I did, I knew what I had to do. If I didn’t, the questions I needed to ask myself were altogether different.

My dad had chosen the latter route. I couldn’t imagine a future in which I wasn’t a professor, though; the backdrop for that scenario never mattered all that much. My career choice was the only clear thing in my life. So I went back to grad school, again. Even though that meant raising toddlers and writing a dissertation at the same time. It was very hard work, but I knew why I was doing it.

Be willing to learn.

While I was a doctoral student at the University of Missouri, I had a chronically ill child and no health insurance. I applied for an administrative job at the university because I needed the insurance benefits–and because “acting as a liaison between Student Affairs and Academic Affairs” sounded like something I could do pretty well.

As it turned out, I learned a lot from that job precisely because I was so woefully unprepared for nearly everything it asked of me. I spent my first year floundering (as quietly as possible) and hoping no one would notice. About a year later, though, I learned that every person who’d been involved in the hiring process had known exactly how unprepared I was.

“Why on earth did you even hire me, then?” I asked.

“Because you asked a lot of questions during your interviews,” my supervisor said. “It was obvious you were willing to learn. I remember at one point I asked if you had any questions, and you said ‘I’m not even sure I know what I don’t know yet.’ That’s when I knew you were the right person for the job.”

I’ve tried to remember those words any time I feel out of control–because sometimes, not knowing what you’re doing works to your benefit. As long as you’re open to the learning process, anything is possible.

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