29: The Power of Words

29: The Power of Words

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

The Power of Words

Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.

~Buddha

I stood outside my professor’s office in Parlin Hall, staring at the black flecks on the hallway floor and thinking about my final grade.

After three years as an English major, I had finally found the courage to take my first creative writing class. Words were my secret best friends, and although I hadn’t told anyone, I wanted to make a career out of them someday. Surely, I thought, my grade would be an indicator of my future success.

The door creaked open, and Professor Mills invited me into her office. She pulled my story out of a file on her desk and shoved it into my hands. A large, red C glared back at me. My eyes fell to the floor. My first instinct was to drop the paper and run.

But Professor Mills wasn’t finished. She raised her eyebrows, and with a tiny smirk, said, “I’m afraid you’ll never be a published writer.”

Heat rose to my cheeks. I managed to mumble goodbye as I turned and grabbed the doorknob. All the way down the hall, those words bounced around my head. All the way home, I wondered if they were true.

When I crashed onto my bed, the tears finally came. I wasn’t just a bad writer; I’d never even get published. Right there, at the age of twenty-two, sprawled on my peach-colored quilt, I gave up my dream of having a writing career.

Life went on. I earned another degree and began teaching elementary school. I got married and had a family, but I never gave up words completely. I continued to read, but my writing consisted only of some secret scribbles in a handmade paper journal.

Something changed shortly after my thirty-ninth birthday. Perhaps I finally recognized the emptiness that had come with ignoring my own need to write. Perhaps it had something to do with an approaching milestone birthday and the realization that time was not infinite.

I was determined to squash Professor Mills’ words, which had been ruling my life for too long. It was time to get reacquainted with my dream. It was time for me to get published.

I began writing after the kids went to school, in the car in the pickup line, and in the middle of the night when I had insomnia. I spent hours at the library and the bookstore, reading and researching magazines and publishers.

At first, I wrote everything — from recipes, crafts, essays and articles to short stories, activities, greeting-card verse and poetry. I wrote for both children and adults, and began submitting my work to magazines and newspapers. When the rejections arrived, Professor Mills’ words buzzed in my head again. But I kept going.

Almost a year later, it finally happened. I quickly leafed through the magazine to find my work. There it was — a short paragraph about my mother’s peanut butter cookies. The magazine paid me ten dollars, but those dollars felt like gold. I was a published writer!

I continued to submit my work — 118 pieces that year — but I also racked up eighty-nine rejections. Each one felt a bit like opening an old wound. I reminded myself that not every rejection had to do with writing quality. I focused instead on the twenty-nine acceptances.

The following year, I enrolled in my first writer’s conference. The doubts began somewhere along the 200-mile journey to the hotel.

What if this is just a silly dream? I wondered.

But the next morning, I took a deep breath and walked into the conference room, laptop in hand. Professor Mills joined me. “You’ll never be a published writer,” she roared in my ears.

I ignored her, and scribbled down all the writing wisdom I heard that weekend. I came home from the conference inspired and ready to work even harder.

I soon joined a critique group, enrolled in online writing courses and met other writers who told rejection stories similar to mine. I learned the writer’s mantra: never give up. There was comfort in the camaraderie.

So I wrote more and submitted more. Rejections and acceptances rolled in, although never at an equal rate.

It wasn’t long before I made it to another conference. This time, I signed up for an editorial critique. I found myself standing outside the meeting room staring at the brown flecks in the hotel carpet. It felt like Parlin Hall all over again.

As I sat down across from the editor, I wiped my sweaty hands on my pants. She pulled my manuscript out of her folder and looked up at me. I held my breath.

Instead of a smirk, she smiled. “This is lovely, lyrical writing.”

I smiled back and started to breathe again. I listened, nodding my head, as she gave me constructive comments to improve my work. I thanked her and turned to leave.

All the way down the hall, her words danced around my heart. All the way home, I told myself they were true.

Two years later, I was still in my pajamas when the phone rang early one morning.

“Your manuscript has won a grant,” a woman said. “Five hundred dollars.”

“Are you sure?” I asked. This had to be a dream.

I had been focusing on writing children’s books by that time, and a national award from a children’s writing organization was both a shock and an honor. I put the money back into my writing education and dared to think that my dream looked brighter than ever.

But things got tougher before they got better. Three of my book manuscripts went to acquisitions meetings, but they were ultimately rejected each time. I signed with an agent shortly afterward, but later left the agent when I realized we weren’t a good fit. I rewrote my children’s novel, only to discover the agent who requested it didn’t like my new version. Rejections flooded my in-box.

Professor Mills’ words grew louder with these new challenges. It didn’t matter that I was already a published writer. I couldn’t keep her toxic words out of my head — words that made me doubt myself.

I took a break from writing then, but I continued to think about the power of words — particularly those six words that controlled my life and my dream. Surely if words had such power, I could find equally persuasive words to counteract them. Positive words.

So I began looking for comments about my work from teachers, peers, editors, and agents.

“Your work is ready.”

“You’re a talented writer.”

“Your language is engaging.”

I compiled a list and posted it above my desk. Each time I found an encouraging or supportive word, I added it to the list. My positive list had a significant and productive effect. I jumped back into writing not long after.

Eventually, I stopped counting the rejections — I still get them. Eventually, I even stopped hearing Professor Mills’ toxic words. Instead I focus on that twenty-two-year-old girl who had a dream to build a writing career. I focus on using my words to teach, inspire and connect with others. Every day, I sit down, read my positive list and start writing.

~Annette Gulati

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