Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Writing Life: What It Really Takes

I’ve never published this little essay, and the end of the semester vibe in the air has put me in the frame of mind to think about my ancient life and a particular teacher I remember very well. And it’s always a good time to think about how to navigate the writing life, and how talent is perhaps the least of what is needed for a successful journey.  


            When I grew up, in Iowa, no one made a point of encouraging my dreams the way parents and teachers are expected to now. When I was ten, watching my first summer Olympics, I announced, “Someday I’m going to be in the Olympics.” Parents, mildly amused: “Oh, really? What sport?” Me, knowing the dog paddle was my only stroke, my cartwheel veered unpredictably, and that I always came in third-to-last in gym class races: “The javelin.” Parents: “You can’t throw a ball, and now you want to throw a spear?”
            That ended my short-lived non-career as a javelin thrower. Instead I chose the writing life, with its constant, familiar, onslaught of rejection, wanting—desperately—only one thing: to be a writer, a real, published writer, with books.
            Senior year in college I ended up in a poetry writing class, taught by a poet: Mr. Metaphor.
            Mr. Metaphor was a hot-shot around the English Department because he was young and vibrant and had recently published his first hot-shot book of poetry. My poetry had been tolerable for high school, but now I was at Midwestern U, and here, I could see that my angsty poetry was pretty lousy. No matter, because I was focused on fiction. My plan was to go to grad school for an MFA and then write novels.
            To apply to grad school, I needed letters of recommendation. My fiction professor had agreed to write on my behalf, but I needed another letter. Why not from this hot-shot poet who had taught at one of the schools where I was applying? So one day after we shredded apart someone’s poem in class, I approached Mr. Metaphor to ask if he would write a letter for my MFA applications. The look of horror—think Edvard Munch—was immediate, so I quickly added, “I’m applying in fiction. I’ll bring you my stories to read,” and the relief left him barely able to speak, as he weakly nodded yes.
            On Friday, I handed him a tidy little folder of my best work.
`           On Monday, I spent an anxious hour as we slashed through another student poem, and after class, I went up to him, spouting something chipper, like, “So, did you read my stories?”
            He was tapping a stack of papers against the desk, and without looking at me he said, “I read them.” Tap-tap-tap. “I read them,” he repeated, “and I can’t write you a letter. You’re not good enough. You’ll never be a writer.”
            That long frozen moment. I think I counted a hundred between each beat of my heart, my only thought of escaping before he saw me cry. Not that there was much chance of that, actually. Messy emotions seemed to me then as suspect as self-esteem—something beyond control, something unwanted and frightening, best corralled onto the blank page, if even there.
            So my stupid, polite, good-girl, Iowa upbringing kicked in and I thanked him. Honestly. “Thank you,” I said to Mr. Metaphor. Those exact words, spoken primly, exactly, without irony or anger. My parents would have been proud.
            Then I left the room.
            I don’t remember the rest of that class, except that I got a B+.
            I found someone else to write my final letter of recommendation. I went to graduate school and got my precious MFA. After graduate school, I wrote—I wrote stories and a novel that didn’t get published, and another one after that, that also didn’t get published. Always, in the back of my mind, burning like an untended fire, was this thought: “I’ll show you, Mr. Metaphor. You’ll see.”
            In the meantime, his poems popped up in various literary journals I read. There was another book. But he had left Midwestern U after a couple of years, and someone told me that his departure was related to his not getting tenure (boohoo). He taught somewhere else, then a third school, where he finally seemed to stick.
            My stories started getting published—“Look at this, Mr. Metaphor,” raged my brain—and won some awards—“What do you think now, Mr. Fucking Metaphor?”—and I was writing magazine articles and won an award for one of those, and things looked mildly hopeful for my writing life.
            Then I won a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, which is a summer gathering of writers and writer wanna-bes, a tense crucible of literature and liquor. It was a big deal to get this award, which meant I attended the conference for free, got a short reading with the dozen other scholars, and—the real prize—got access to the “party cabin” where the “real” writers hung out after dutifully teaching all day.
            I saw on the brochure that Mr. Metaphor would also be at Bread Loaf, one of the “real writers.” Hmmm, maybe I could…but I reconsidered, tamping that primitive voice in my head with a soothing litany: it’s a small world; what would saying anything accomplish; and anyway, he was in poetry and I was in fiction, so our paths would never cross in the sea of two hundred writers.
            And yet our paths crossed constantly: at every reading, every social event, every cocktail party, every night at the party cabin. He was staring my way, watching me from across the room. Staring, staring, staring…and one night he came up to me and trapped me. Neither of us was even drunk yet.
            “You look so familiar,” he said.
            I slid on my good-girl smile: “Well…actually, you were my teacher once. But it was so long ago, I can’t believe you would remember me”—then added in my head, me and my B+, asshole. I guzzled my gin—sick of sugary tonic at this point of the conference, I now drank straight Tanquery over an ice cube or two. Not recommended.
            He seemed pleased, perhaps happy to see a former student who wasn’t living under a bridge or begging for attention. “What school was that?”
            “Midwestern U.”
            That familiar horror on his face: The Scream Redux. “Oh my God,” and now he guzzled at his drink before he spoke carefully: “Did I ever do anything bad to you?” An emphasis on that single word, “bad.”
            That damn politeness of mine nudged, and I thought, Don’t go into it—my friends who knew the whole story were in the corner waving anxiously, sending telepathic messages for me to shut up—but Mr. Metaphor had ASKED, and I was drinking this straight gin on ice and well, I didn’t live in Iowa anymore, so I said, “Actually, yes. Yes, you did do something bad. I asked for a letter of recommendation for grad school, and you read my stories and told me I wasn’t good enough and that I’d never be a writer.”
            “My God,” he repeated, before racing through his words: “I’m sorry. That was a bad time in my life back then—I was suffering from undiagnosed Graves’ disease, and I had terrible depression. I did awful things to so many students. Once I wrote at the top of someone’s 25-page research paper, ‘fuck you.’”
            “Wow,” I said.
            More guzzling. The party around us felt obscene and strange: laughter, music I didn’t recognize.
            “I’m so sorry,” and he leaned in to hug me with strong, solid arms. “Look at you now: a scholar at Bread Loaf, which means you’re getting your work published in top journals. You’re doing well.”
            I nodded, still shocked. Mostly I was shocked at what I hadn’t realized until right then: I had assumed he was right, that he had known something about me. That his assessment was accurate and true. And yet I had kept writing my stories and books anyway.
            He said, “I’m so happy you didn’t listen to me,” and we hugged again, went our separate ways back to the liquor, to our friends.

            I’m so happy you didn’t listen to me. Yes, me too.

            Now, I’m a writing teacher, and to be honest, there are times where it’s my secret fantasy to write “fuck you” on the top of someone’s woeful story. But I don’t. The problem with tough love is that you don’t know—until the end—who’s tough enough for your form of love and who isn’t.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.