The Red Pencil

“Always allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind” ~Maria Popova

In a creative writing class, a teacher once told us a story about Raymond Carver who was a legend for reading his published works with a red pencil in his hand. He’d revise his published hard-bound work in front of a live audience.

The words, she said, are never perfect.

Instead of feeling inspired by that anecdote, I remember feeling endless despair. I put my hands to my head and caught the scent of the bleached bar rag from the waitress shift I had just completed. I wondered if I was making a colossal mistake with my life. I remember trying to stop myself from crying because my teacher was this incredible strong feminist. My self-debt glowed like a heat lamp in my chest. Tears gathered, but I could not look weak in front a teacher I was trying to impress. Those women did not cry.

The idea that you’d never be happy with what you wrote—that a great wordsmith and master of scenes like Carver was never pleased–was not what I needed to hear as a student. Fuck, I thought, how will I ever be happy with what I’m producing? I reread sentences of his that I loved from “Cathedral” searching for areas of that he may have deemed worthy of improvement.

Carver wrote these lines with a red pencil in hand:

In those olden days, when they built cathedrals, men wanted to be close to God.

You’ve got to work with your mistakes until they look intended. Understand? 

I’m doomed, I thought. We didn’t have that mind-blowing-up-emoji back then, and I could have used it because I was out of words.

Years later, I reread my journal from that era, and I now see something completely different when I imagine him at the lectern with a red pencil in hand reading to a live audience. Carver had it all figured out really, but I wasn’t ready for that image of a professional writer never being satisfied.

Back then, my self-made misery as a young person eventually contributed to what I thought I could be and what I could do. What I wanted to do. To be. 

My teacher was laying down some real wisdom about writing, and I picked up something completely different than what she intended at the time.

And now I’m ready for that message. I pick up that red pencil (although it’s mostly in the digital form) every day.

The words, I know, are never perfect.

P.S. If you attended my preso with my dear friend, Quill West, I want to express gratitude for your willingness to listen to us share our mistakes and thoughts. I will write about this another time, but for now, I need to post my October blog so that I make my self-imposed deadline of monthly bloggy during 2020.

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
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