On setting a high bar

April 7, 2017

Dallas Woodburn is currently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. She received her M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from Purdue University and her B.A. in Creative Writing and Entrepreneurship from the University of Southern California.

Whenever I read a rough draft by a young writer, or when I look over a business plan from a student asking me for feedback, or when I am pitched an idea for a collaboration or project, I think of a woman named Cynthia. I don’t even know her last name, but she had a profound impact on me.

I was a sophomore in high school, attending a writing conference for the first time. It was the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and it was a wonderful, energizing smorgasbord of resources, lectures, writing workshops, speakers, and information.

However, I felt completely and utterly overwhelmed.

The youngest one in attendance by at least a decade, to say I was “out of my comfort zone” that week would be putting it mildly. Shy by nature, I was desperately homesick and felt like I did not belong. I remember those first few meals in the dining hall, looking around for somewhere to sit, feeling like the little kid asking to eat at the grown-up table.

Then I met Cynthia, in a workshop called “Writing for Children.” I summoned the courage to share a story I had written with other members of the workshop, and they responded with heartfelt encouragement. Cynthia, with no-nonsense energy and a warm smile, came up to me after class ended and asked if she could read a copy of my entire story. “You’re talented,” she said. “I want to help you get published.” Not only did I have a friend to sit with in the dining hall the rest of the week, but I also had a writing buddy — someone who treated me like a peer and took my work seriously.

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