Over the past few days, I’ve heard from a friend struggling with juggling work, motherhood, marriage, and graduate school and a client struggling with her writing.  I understand.  I struggle too.

Right now I’m struggling to write this because I’m sitting in Whataburger.  Let me back up.  For years, I had a set writing routine.  I’d wake up, check my email, shower, check email again, get dressed, check email again, and walk out the door to Whataburger — hence, the Whataburger cup on the home page of my old website.

I’d order a number one meal (Whataburger, fries, and soda), fill up my cup with ice and Diet Coke, sit down at one of my three favorite tables (next to the door or windows), pull out a hard copy of my previous day’s writing, and start editing.  By doing that, by the time I left the WB, I knew exactly where I needed to began writing, what I wanted to write, and how I wanted to start it.  And, and this and is important, I thought about that opening all the way home so that all I had do to when I got home was flip on the computer and start writing.

Other times, I’d take my laptop to Whataburger and start writing there, sometimes getting so lost in my work that I’d stay for hours.  I’d “wake up” to realize I’d written through an entire Whataburger shift change.  I loved that.  I loved that the Whataburger employees found my work and me intriguing enough that they’d let me sit for hours and leave me alone.

But as some of you know, I moved, which meant a switch in Whataburger’s.  While my new WB is filled with great employees, I’ve never felt comfortable working here.  Only one employee seems curious about my work, and that’s because he wants me to edit his school papers for him, which I would do if he’d ever remember to bring them to me.  Plus, this store is too small to let me take up a table for hours.  And the clientele is different.  Musicians and homeless men frequented my old Whataburger.  Retired corporate executives and blue-collar workers fill this Whataburger.  Some people would consider that an improvement.  I don’t.  They don’t feed my creative juices.

I remember sitting in my old Whataburger when Jennifer Gale walked in, her brown hair flowing over the shoulders of her red Christmas sweatshirt.  For those of you who don’t know Austin, Jennifer was a transgendered homeless woman who frequently ran for mayor.  She was a sweetheart.  I can say that from personal experience because as she walked out the door one day, she stopped, turned around, came over to me, and with a big, beautiful smile on her face told me how much she loved my eyeglasses and that she hoped I had a wonderful day.

Jennifer Gale

Such kindnesses don’t happen at my current Whataburger.

And, indeed, Jennifer made my day wonderful.

I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t feel the emotional support at my current Whataburger that I did at my old one.  And I’m sure I’m projecting myself on my friend and my client when I say that often we find ourselves struggling when we feel like we’re not getting the emotional support we need.

I know that’s happened to me over the past few years as I’ve struggled with my sex book.  People who once supported it turned against it.  One person even told me that the book is going to destroy my career and … well, I don’t want to say what else she said.  But perhaps worst of all, the person I depended on to be my biggest, loudest-cheering champion gave me such harsh critique that I lost my self-confidence.  Initially, the harsh critique was done in the name of making me a better writer.  At first, that’s what it felt like – hard critique to make me better.  But over the years it seemed to turn into cruel, unnecessary digs intended to make me doubt myself.  And that’s what it did.  Like the cliché acid, it ate away at my self-confidence.  The scars run deep and red.

I’ve thought about that a lot over the past hours … ever since I got the email from my client … saying her writing wasn’t going well … that her work (in essence, since I’ve been coaching her) is missing its former elegance, that it seems forced and clunky.

She’s right.  And I know the reason why.  In the name of making her a better writer, I froze her with my harsh critique.

“Stand up and shake,” I wrote her back.  “Literally.  Just stand up and shake me off.  Then go read my blog about writer’s terror.  Don’t think or worry about me.  Just write.  Just write for yourself … for your soul … like nobody’s listening.”

That’s what I said last night.  Today, all I’ve been thinking about is my mentor Ben Masselink.  Ben was my favorite instructor in the University of Southern California Master of Professional Writing Program.  All Ben ever told me was go, go, go, go, go, you can do this.  You’re almost there.  Go, go, go, go, go, go … though Ben usually said it with a ton of typos as he pecked out the words on one of his black Underwood typewriters.

So, to my client, I want to say I’m very sorry that I’ve made you doubt your talent. Truly, I have been hard on you because I do believe in you and do believe that you are talented.  In fact, you might be the most innately talented writer I coach.  I’ve been harsh on you because I thought you were strong enough to handle the critique and because I wanted to prepare you for the harshness of this industry.  I still believe you are strong enough to handle the critique, but I failed to remember that we all need a Ben Masselink in our lives.  So, girl, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go.  You’re almost there.  You can do it.  I believe in you.  Go, go, go, go, go, go.

And to my friend, I believe in you too.  I know it’s hard.  I wish I were there to help you juggle.  But I know you can do this.  Go, go, go, go, go.  Or, as Ben told me, “YOURE GOING TO DO IT!!!!”

No, you ARE doing it.

USC classmate, friend, and novelist, Mitchell Sam Rossi, me, and our beloved mentor, Ben Masselink

Suzy Spencer is a New York Times best-selling author and journalist.
  1. Joel Reply
    Hi, I just came across this...I was also a student of Ben's, he later became my advisor! He was quite an inspiration to me, and I might whisper that he was the only person at USC I really learned anything from...

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