My First Humiliation
We’re all at a long wood table, all ten of us fledgling writers, and someone jokes, “Who has the Valium?” just as our writing professor walks in. I’m at Brandeis, and I’m barely 20 years old, and I’ve had to submit two stories to get into this creative writing class, and for the whole class, it’s been misery. The professor (we’ll call him Jack), attacks our structure with disdain, bemoans our characters and threatens to walk out of the room if he has to read any more drivel. “You all need to develop thick skins if you want to make it,” he tells us. We stay because we want to get better, because he’s famous and he has publishing connections he’s promised to use if he sees fit. This week, the last week of class, he has asked me to submit my story. (Actually, he asked me to bring it to his home in Cambridge, a half hour away, and give it to him personally before the class--a request so odd, I took a cab to his place and had the cab wait while I stuffed the story in his mailbox and fled.)
Jack walks in smiles at me and pulls out my story, holding it by his fingertips. “So, who wants to comment on this garbage?” he says and I slink into my seat.
No one wants to comment. We’re all in the trenches together, but Jack pulls and prods and asks leading questions like, “Hey, Beth, the characterization is almost nil. Why do you think that is?”
By the end of the class, Jack has outlined why he hates my story, why it doesn’t work, and listed my failings. I feel tears streaking my cheeks. The girl beside me hands me a tissue and I get up and leave the class and Jack doesn’t stop me. I never come back.
Flash forward ten years. Despite Jack’s assessment of me, I never stopped writing, and my first novel, Meeting Rozzy Halfway is published and suddenly I find myself acclaimed! I’m in the NYT! I’m flown everywhere!
I can’t help it. I look up Jack and write him a letter and enclose my New York Times review. See, I did it, I think. You didn’t stop me. I don’t expect anything, but I get a letter back from him. Warm, friendly. “I knew you could do it!” he says. “All that time in my class, I was just trying to make you angry enough to work harder, to gather what it takes to make it in publishing.” I’m astonished he’d think such a thing, or do such a thing to a young writer, but I keep reading. “And by the way,” he writes. “Your characterization still is wobbly.”
He was right about one thing. I do have a thick skin now. I toss the letter in the wastebasket. I shut him out, and I get back to work.
Photo credit: Thaddeus Rombauer