"We don't write what we know. We write what we wonder about."
- Richard Peck
When I attended college, I was required to take English 101 and an English elective. I chose Creative Writing. I had taken a Creative Writing class in high school, which I remembered enjoying. Well, except one day when a football player student wrote an essay on how all people who were gay should be shipped to their own island to prevent the spread of AIDS.
When I pointed that not only gay people had AIDS he said, “What are you, a lesbian?”
Although the comment was mortifying to a high school junior, I replied, “Yeah, defending gay people makes me a lesbian.
Anyway, before my college class wrote our first piece, the professor lectured us on the proper way to give feedback to our fellow writers. Constructive critique.
Our first assignment was to describe a place that had meaning to us. I have no idea what I wrote about. But I do remember in the sea of typical essays, one person’s piece stood out. She wrote something to the effective of, “I gnawed on my couch and felt the fibers between my teeth.” I knew she possessed talent the rest of us didn’t, but wished we did. The teacher was obviously pleased.
I also remember the woman who volunteered to first read her essay. So brave. What she wrote about, I have no idea. But I do remember the response.
One man, older than the rest of us, chortled when she was done.
The professor turned to him. “Do you have a problem with the essay?”
Arrogant in expression and tone, he replied, “Yes.”
“All of it.”
Scowling, the professor reminded him, “This is a place for constructive criticism. It doesn’t improve her writing if you’re not specific.”
Then he rattled off a list of problems. So harsh.
Not that day, but during another class it was his turn to read. Rather than appearing nervous, he looked like he was doing us a favor by blessing us with his prose. I don’t recall what he wrote about, but I still have a copy of his essay tucked in a box in my basement. It was awful. The worst. He wrote flowery sentences that didn’t propel the story.
The room was quiet. I don’t think any of us wanted to talk to him directly. But it was bad. So bad. One brave soul critiqued it. Then another. And another.
He was flummoxed. Argumentative. Then silent.
The second project was to write about a person we knew whom we admired. Just months from getting engaged (though I didn’t know it at the time) I wrote about my boyfriend. I told the story about how he’d struggled in elementary school, didn’t think he was smart, and planned to drop out of school to start a traveling carnival with a friend. His parents got him to agree to try, really try to do well in school for one year. His guidance counselor believed in him. He took atypical classes, one being a psychology course. He realized school could be interesting. When I met him in Early Morning Gym, he was considering college. Then I wrote that he excelled in college, and actually broke the curve on some of his tests. I admired him for where he started, and how much he’d accomplished when he decided to believe in himself.
My arrogant classmate wrote about his boss. Again, there was an attempt at depth. Again, he wrote in circles. One sentence stood out, and I’ve never forgotten it:
“He is what he is and what he appears to be is what he is.”
That should give you some idea of the rest of the piece.
By then, the class was tired of him. People tore into his essay with relish. Even so, nobody was as mean to him as he was to us. We never got personal. We never told him he was a bad writer. We never told him to give up. He’d done that to many of my classmates.
The man stormed out. He never returned.
Based on the critique I received, I polished up all of my pieces. Then I had to choose one of the five or six works we wrote during the semester, and read it in front of my classmates. I chose the one about my boyfriend, who, by then had become my fiancé. I was proud of my sappy essay.
I enjoyed the class. My feedback was never devastating. Nobody ever told me I couldn’t write. I knew I wasn’t as bad as the arrogant man. But I knew I wasn’t as good as the woman who gnawed on her couch. That, to me, was proof I wasn’t meant to write.
After college, there were a several times I secretly wrote snippets of stories hidden notebooks and let documents languish in computer files.
When my son was in preschool, I attempted a picture book about a boy in kindergarten who has to reconcile being Jewish during all of the emphasis on Christmas in his classroom. I didn’t know how to format the piece or write a query letter. I sent it out to handful of Jewish presses. I received form rejections.
It took two more years before I decided to write. Really write.
I can look back and wish that I’d done things differently. I can ask, “What if?” But we are the sum of our experiences. That one creative writing class in college taught me much about writing and critiquing. Do I wish I’d taken more classes like that? Yes. But it wasn’t who I was. It wasn’t where I was in my journey.
I believe if I’d decided to write seriously then, I might not have been ready. And I wouldn’t have accumulated the varied experiences that have broadened my perspective.
But I wouldn't have spent so much time brushing up on grammar.
Do you look back and wonder, “What if?”?
If so, what would you change? What would you keep?
P.S. I posted my Aura query on my 2nd blog: http://theresamilstein2.blogspot.com/2010/08/aura-query.html