I’ve known how to write for a very, very long time. But knowing how to write doesn’t make you a writer, in the same way that knowing how to shoot a basketball doesn’t make you an athlete (although it took me quite a while to realize that).
This week I finally got around to making a LinkedIn account (doesn’t that make me an official adult?). As I was updating my profile with various publications of mine, I got a chance to look over what I’ve written, and more interestingly, the responses that my works received.
For most of my early columns, if I received any feedback at all, it consisted of very encouraging and complimentary emails – emails that I only received from relatives.
It wasn’t long before I got my first real dose of what being a writer is like. In my article for the Dallas Morning News, titled “Why are public schools so afraid of religion?”, I attempted to suggest is that if students were taught more about religion from an objective perspective, we could be more tolerant, understanding, and accepting of the beliefs of others.
I must not have succeeded in getting my point across, because I received an email saying, “You are well aware of the problems in the public schools of today because Christian principles are no longer allowed and your question is certainly valid. You have to realize that atheists and non-believers are the ones that fear religion in the schools.” If we’re being honest here, I’m really not at all aware of any problems that occur in public schools because of Christian principles being abandoned. On his second point, I don’t think he realizes that atheists and agnostics actually score higher than Christians when quizzed on religious knowledge.
Luckily, that same column earned me my first compliment from a non-relative. The lady (who fortunately actually understood the point that I was trying to make) offered these kind words, “In our quest to take “religion” out of the school system and by ignoring its profound influence on politics and cultural norms throughout the world, we send our children into that same world quite unenlightened and unprepared to understand it. I completely agree that a world religion class should be part of every high school curriculum.”
Another milestone was reached after my column “A word to my fellow whiners” was published. A critical response to my column, titled “Writer is a whiner without a cause” was published in the letters to the editors section of the Dallas Morning News. I was truly honored.
However, the most replies came after the publication of my column “To read or not to read so much Shakespeare, that is the question.” The Bard, I discovered, was not to be insulted.
One reader wrote, “In stating his disdain for Shakespeare and Dickens and his love of music, movies and television, Mr. McCann tells us that learning and knowledge are OK, just as long as they don’t involve any work or effort. Is Mr. McCann, a high school senior and a Student Voices volunteer columnist to boot, a typical product of America’s schools today? If so, no wonder we have problems.”
Another wrote, “If a reader says Shakespeare is boring,”- which I did -“then my response is that the reader is probably lazy, too mentally inert to look up words he doesn’t know, to ponder concepts that challenge or even reinforce his values, to relate situations to his own life.”
One comment reminded me of how lucky I am to have had the opportunity to write in the Dallas Morning News: “We see this systemic dumbin [sic] down everywhere in our culture, whether it’s the inane writing of Stephanie Meyer or the dearth of originality in Hollywood and on Broadway, or the scourge of reality TV. I’m sorry that this is unclear to the author of this piece and even sorrier that a major publication gave him a platform to propagate the lowering of academic standards.”
Some of my other favorite comments included, “This makes me want to cry,” “I think it’s hilariously bad. Really narrow-minded and whiny,” and the simple “America is doomed.”
I was no longer just a high school student. It wasn’t just kind words from family members or polite encouragement from sympathetic readers, nor was it even soft, constructive criticism. No, no, no. I had people criticize me, not as a teenaged high school student, but as a human being.
Still, I didn’t quite consider myself a writer just yet.
For my first ever college column, I wrote about my struggle with depression for The Daily Texan. For this column, I only received one anonymous reply, but it was the greatest reply I had ever gotten:
Mac McCann’s article “Don’t Diminish Depression” moved me in a deeply personal way.My dad has had severe depression since I was about 2 years old. The disease cost him his marriage and his family. For most of my life, I’ve felt the same way as Mac about depression: it is a selfish affliction. I’ve never understood why my dad can’t see the beauty in the world the same way that I can, and I’ve never understood why he is forever unable to work towards changing his life if he is unhappy with it. Depression as a psychological condition irritates me – here my dad had a beautiful family that he threw away because he was “sad”.I understand that depression is a legitimate medical condition but I often find it difficult to empathize, or even sympathize, with those who have depression. Mac’s article was a rare testimony of what it is like to actually have depression. Those of us who are close to depressed individuals can attest that getting them to actually talk, let alone write, about their experience is a daunting task. Yet it is a vitally important one – honest, open dialogue can be one of the best remedies and preventative measures.Seeing Mac’s words helped me see that I am not alone in my confusion about depression as a medical affliction. And seeing his thoughtful prose on depression’s personal effects helped me to move toward a sympathetic approach to my dad’s mental state. When people like Mac speak out about depression, people like me learn to better understand and help those with depression. More importantly, we remember to keep our own hope alive that depression is not permanent. We remember to have faith that our loved ones will see happier days. “
That’s when it changed for me. I no longer just ‘wrote’ – I was a writer.