Turning Whine Into Gold
In high school, I was the type of high achiever that had my teachers taking me under their wings. Turns out, that wasn’t always such a good thing.
My fifth-year Russian teacher, thinking I’d follow in his footsteps, challenged me to write a research paper on a Russian ballerina—in Russian. My biology teacher got permission for a small group of us budding doctors to watch two surgeries at Johns Hopkins Hospital (where my best friend fainted dead away). I loved math, and attacked my homework problems the second I got home each day. I’m sure my math teachers wouldn’t have been surprised at all if I’d become an engineer, although that was at a time when girls weren’t encouraged to think such things.
I benefitted from my teachers’ interest in ways I will never be able to fathom. But one thing they did was particularly damaging to a girl whose self-esteem was already wobbly: they whispered to my parents about my “potential.”
If you believe in the power of words, then know this: “potential” is a cruel mistress. Such talk set up a syndrome in which I was always comparing my performance to a future standard I had no clue how to define—and without fail, I found my performance lacking.
A person who strives to fulfill her potential can be a person who is never done preparing to live her life.
“Potential is a concept that can bind us to personal powerlessness,” wrote Marianne Williamson in her book, A Return to Love. That held true for me at the start of my writing journey. Wondering if I had the “potential for brilliance” made it all the harder to take those first, bumbling baby steps toward story without the handrails of an MFA or PhD to guide my steps.
How could it be, I wondered, that many successful novelists never even graduated from high school? My guess is, they didn’t waste time focusing on their potential. They just wrote.
Instead of potential, Williamson suggests we think of our “capacity for brilliance.” Capacity is available to us right now. Our memories, curiosity, imagination, and desire to learn can open the gates to unused brain space and open our hearts. As a novelist, I already have the capacity to be a Russian translator, a doctor, and an engineer—all in one story.
Instead of thinking, “I have the potential to be a novelist,” try telling yourself, “I already have the capacity of a novelist.”
By celebrating our capacity to write, we no longer need to worry about our potential—we’ll be accumulating the words that will line a path straight toward it. Extend your efforts into the fullness of your capacity. Show up powerfully on the page and apply the brilliance that exists within you, today. As Williamson says, “how will we ever get to tomorrow’s promise without making some sort of move today?”
The story that is growing within you is yours to tell.
Have you ever been paralyzed by worrying about your potential? What unlived lives are within your capacity, that you would like to manifest through your characters
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Kathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy, and a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” was included in the writing guide Author in Progress, from Writers Digest Books. Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with her, “How Structure Supports Meaning,” originally published in the 2017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, has been reprinted in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, both from Writer’s Digest Books.