Monday, March 4, 2013

Thanks to A Creative Writing Teacher

When I was in high school, I took not one but two creative writing classes. My junior year (or was it sophomore?) I sat through your standard class. Daily writing prompts on the whiteboard to be answered in a notebook that was collected every day, then a lesson on different kinds of writing and poetry, ending with a homework assignment to write something along those lines. Aside from having fun with the prompts, it was dull. I was with people who were just taking the class for an easy grade (one girl didn't even know what a muse was. Period. Like, not even the mythological muse. She peer-reviewed my final project which I'd named "Voice of the Muse", and literally said "I don't know who this Muse character is, but Maggie references them a lot in her titles. She didn't put them in any of her stories.")

My senior year, I was one of a handful of students who was offered the chance to go off-campus for half the day and take courses at the local community college, classes that would transfer to a four-year university when we graduated. I jumped at the opportunity and signed up for the college's offered creative writing course among my other classes.

The professor who walked in that day was the complete opposite of my high school teacher in every way. Dr. Wright was an older gentleman, dignified, professional, straight-laced, eloquent, clean, and I wondered what I, a weird, fantasy-loving teenager who wrote short stories about a girl with a magic pencil whose nemesis was the weatherman, had gotten myself into.

I still hold to this day that it was one of the greatest classes I ever took in my entire schooling career. That first day, Dr. Wright told us we had one assignment. We were to bring in something. We had to bring 15 poems, a short story of X pages, or a script of Y pages. We were encouraged to bring something every class, and bring a copy for everyone else. And that was it. He didn't tell us HOW to write or WHAT to write. He just told us to write, and every class, we sat down and critiqued what had been brought in that day. Sometimes he would talk about things he had read himself, and occasionally would bring in giant piles of books to give away because he was just out of space to keep them. If he asked a question that we didn't know the answer to, he didn't tell us. We could look it up ourselves if we wanted to know. And he never went gentle on critiques.

I had been bringing in poems like everyone else for a few weeks before I decided I wanted to bring in a fantasy story I had been writing. All I had was the layout of the setting and the history of the world. It was looking to be very, very long. To make it work for the assignment, I put it in the context of a story being told by a grandmother who was entertaining her two youngest grandchildren while their father and teenage sister listened. There were interruptions and distractions, and Grandma didn't get too far into the story before dinner started to burn. The story was less fantasy and more the family's interaction with each other, with touches of this story I was working on in it. I had no idea how Dr. Wright would take it. Like I said, he was honest and held nothing back on his critiques.

He had no criticism for it. He liked my visuals and descriptions. When someone in the class said she didn't understand how anyone could pretend to ignore someone as I had written the younger children doing, he sided with me and explained it to her. I was in shock. He had never done this with anything anyone else or even I had brought in before. A class or two later, he came in and handed me a book. His mentor had written it, he said, and he wanted to pass it on to me because, from my story, he thought I would like it. It was a thin fantasy story about lost islands and shapeshifters. When he gave it to me, he told me his mentor had submitted it to 60 publishers before one took it. He told me not to give up, no matter how many rejections I would get. Without ever saying it directly, he told me I had promise, that I could do it, that I could be a writer and see my book on the shelves as long as I didn't give up.

I still have the copy of that short story he gave back to me with his comments on it. It's stored away in a box of memories and pictures and precious things. Dr. Wright may never see this post, may not remember my name if he saw in on a shelf, may never know how much that gesture meant to me. He could never imagine that it would be one of the things to pull me out of the pit I was sliding into six years later, to keep me from losing faith in myself and my writing when I was at my lowest point. But I will always be grateful to him for it, and I hope, someday, he'll be seated at home, reading a book by some new no-name author. He'll scan through the acknowledgements at the end of the book and see a small line: To Dr. Wright, thanks for the faith. I hope he'll smile and know that it's to him.