“A good teacher,” Molly Peacock writes in her book The Paper Garden: Mrs Delaney Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, “urges you beyond your childish perfectionism.”
I have just spent five years working with a good teacher. I first met Merilyn Simonds online, when I signed up for her four-month course, Writing From Life, at UBC’s Booming Ground. The first pages I sent – an essay I’d been writing off and on for a couple of years – had been polished so much, I’d worn the finish off.
“I sense a holding back,” Merilyn told me gently after she read that first piece.
At the end of the course, I had rough drafts of several new stories and a sense that together they might just be a book. I had barely begun. Merilyn agreed to continue in a mentorship role. She combed through draft after draft, and later, responded to my weekly updates. She coached me on writing scenes and building tension. She encouraged me to attend to pacing and chart dramatic arcs. She pointed me to a rich reading list of personal nonfiction. Through it all, she urged me beyond the perfectionism I’d clung to since I was a child.
Stay open. Trust your gut. Move quickly.
Don’t think too much. Engage your sensual self. Enjoy the ride.
Learning a skill, Molly Peacock suggests, involves an attention that moves an artist “beyond the self to the focused-on thing. All else drops away.”
This is what happened to me in my time with Merilyn. I rooted out the arch, persistent, know-it-all narrator who was always sneaking in and taking over. I sensed my story develop muscles and a pulse of its own. I learned how to let go of myself and surrender to the thing I was making.
A few weeks ago, Merilyn read the fifth draft of my manuscript. “Yes it is a book. And yes it is finished,” she wrote. “The tightness is gone.”
After five years, I am going forward without my teacher. But oh, I have been taught well.
Over lunch a few months ago, Merilyn answered my questions about getting the manuscript out to publishers. As usual, she had several suggestions, but lately, I keep returning to this one.
“Get busy with the next thing.”
Yes, ma’am. And thank you.