Darren Greer discovered his love of writing when he was eight years old and attending a two-room schoolhouse in Greenfield, Nova Scotia. There were about 30 students in the school, with grades primary to three in one room and grades four to six in the other. Two of those students, Susan and Jane, started writing their own little screenplays about a family of boys, which they’d read in front of the class for fun.
“I decided to try this, so I wrote about these same kids. I just wrote a little story play, and I read it to the class,” says Greer. “About three or four minutes in, the entire class started laughing at something that I had written and I realized for the first time, at that really young age, that writing had power. That you can move people, that you can make them laugh. Later on, I learned that you could make them cry, and you could make them feel, and that’s really what it’s all about. It’s about feeling and laughing and crying for ourselves when we write the story, but the plug in the socket is moving others.”
He continued to write after that initial discovery—he enjoyed it and found that he had some natural talent. Then, in Grade 11, he met the teacher who would keep him motivated for decades to come.
“When I was 16, this teacher, Cynthia Hutton, started assigning short stories, and I had a million to write,” says Greer. “I was so happy, because I’d been already writing those.”
Hutton was the first person to suggest writing for a living and solely the notion opened the door to possibilities Greer hadn’t considered. “The idea that I could do this, that I could actually get published, was a foreign concept,” he says.
But despite her encouragement, Hutton was a hard marker.
“She only ever gave me a 9.5. She marked out of 10 and she almost always gave me a 9 or a 9.5,” says Greer. She told me once that only one student had surprised her enough to force a 10 from her. Only one. I spent a lot of time trying to write stories that were going to literally blow her mind. That was my goal.”
That year, though, no matter how hard Greer worked, how great his endings were and how surprising his plots were, Hutton never gave him the 10. But she did give him a goal to work towards and for Greer that goal was invaluable.
For years, Greer and Hutton stayed in touch. Every time he published a book, Greer would drive out to see Hutton. They’d go for lunch and Greer would give her a signed copy of his most recent book.
One of those lunches is particularly memorable for Greer.
“Years later, after one of my trips back, she said to me, ‘Darren, you were by far the best writer I ever had in my class, that I’ve ever taught in the history of my career,’” he says. “And I’m like, ‘What about the one that you gave the 10 to? What’s this about? All this was for nothing and I actually was getting a 10 the entire time?’ I thought it was really great.”
Greer says he’s lost track of Hutton now but her motivating presence stays with him. No matter how well each book does, no matter how happy he is with them, he’s always determined to write a better book next time.
“I thank Cynthia Hutton for teaching me that, inadvertently maybe,” he says. “She didn’t probably intend to, but she taught me that you can always, always do better. Cynthia Hutton was basically my first reviewer. She was giving me reviews. She did it with a point system, but they’re no different than getting a review in a newspaper, and a review in a newspaper has the same value, even if it’s negative.”
Greer does pay attention to reviews, even the negative ones. Sometimes he’s “a little pissed off” for the first few minutes after reading them but then he takes a few deep breaths and tries to read and consider the review with an open mind.
“I’ve learned more from bad reviews than I’ve ever learned from good reviews,” he says. “Often, they’re wrong. Often they miss the point, or they don’t get it, or they were looking for something else. But quite often, they bring up some really good points. I try to learn from them. Cynthia Hutton taught me that, too. She taught me a lot.”