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Why Encouragement Matters

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Yesterday, I picked up one of my short stories from my
mailbox at school and a professor had written only this on it: You’re on your way. I didn’t know what
it meant and I knew what it meant. It wasn’t specific, wasn’t especially useful
feedback, but in the same sense, it was the best feedback I could have
received.

It always helps to hear, from teachers, what is working,
what isn’t. It helps to acquire advice, suggestions, to hear the truth about
your work. But it is also immensely helpful to simply receive a spark of
encouragement. A powerful one-liner. A Yes.
I think back to the times I’ve heard these from people and they’re like little
life rafts, there for you when your confidence is sinking. Perhaps teachers know
when we need them the most? Or perhaps it’s just perfect timing. Or maybe,
maybe, we are just our own worst critics and these sparks of encouragement remind
us that it’s not always about critiquing. That sometimes we need to sit back
and applaud ourselves, allow ourselves a moment to reflect, appreciate, to say Ok, yes, I did good.

I attended a workshop in France a few summers ago and I
remember sitting at the large farmer’s table under a grape arbor during our
first night. The two teachers sat at the table with us, sipping Rose, talking,
laughing—they were really a part of our group that week. We were on our first
course—cheese, lots of cheese— and the woman who was teaching my fiction workshop
looked over to the event organizer and then pointed at me. She has it, the teacher said, nodding. It. I remember writing a frantic email
home to my family… I have it! I have it!
Someone thinks I have it
. Now mind you, the next day, during the workshop,
the teacher proceeded to pull my story apart, examining it from all sides,
sharing what wasn’t working, what could be much better. She tore parts out, put
parts in. She slashed through mixed metaphors, crossed out whole paragraphs.
She was brutal in many ways. And what did I do? I sat there with a smile on my
face. I took in her suggestions, listened closely to her feedback. She told me
the truth and I trusted her. I also trusted that she believed in me, in my
work. She wanted me to be better, to be my best. And the story did need tons of
work. Reading it over years later, I am amazed at how far I’ve come as a
writer. But that was where I was then.
And then, my teacher had faith in me. And that was enough to keep me going.

We need these teachers, these mentors. We need their little
lifts of encouragement. “Nine tenths of education is encouragement,” said
Anatole France. This is a tough job, this writing thing. It’s a tough dream we
are pursuing. It is so damn easy to get discouraged. It happens daily for some
of us. Maybe even hourly. What the heck
are we doing? And by the way, are we even good enough?
During those times
it helps to remember those positive comments, those little life rafts. Savor
them and believe in them. Because even though we may not be there yet, it
always helps to know we are on our way.

“One
of the most beautiful gifts in the world is the gift of encouragement. When
someone encourages you, that person helps you over a threshold you might
otherwise never have crossed on your own.”

-John
O’Donohue

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