Thursday, January 17, 2019

My First Time: Christy Stillwell

My First Encouragement

As a freshman at the University of Georgia, I declared an art major. Winter quarter I was registered for my first studio art class, held in the art building, a warehouse-like place with high ceilings and cement floors. Smelling of chalky paint and turpentine, the place felt exotic and intimidating. We sat at long worktables. A quick glance at the supply list and syllabus revealed what I estimated to be several hundred dollars’ worth of materials. The instructor explained that we would be drawing while she roved the room looking over our shoulders. On Fridays, we would place our work on the easel in the center of the room and submit to peer critique. At that moment I knew I wasn’t as serious as I thought about drawing or painting. I left the class, walked to the registrar, and dropped my major. Standing there with my pencil and my drop/add form, I asked myself, “What do you like to do? What can you see yourself doing—maybe not forever but for the next four years?”

Reading. I liked to read.

Major: English. I signed up for one of the few English classes with spaces left: Creative Writing 101, with Coleman Barks.

I didn’t know who he was. He wasn’t as famous at the time as he was going to become—Coleman Barks, the pre-eminent translator of Rumi, the thirteenth-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic. When my dorm hall monitor explained to me that Barks was a poet and a translator and a “Big Deal,” I shrugged and nodded. To me he was a bearded man with a deep voice who was open to going to the bar with his students, those who were old enough to drink.

Barks’ method of teaching was passive; he didn’t care what we called him, Coleman, Mr. Barks, Dr. Barks. He let us say what we wanted, and write what we wanted. He spoke of poetic moments and gave us examples: Crossing a parking lot he had seen a young woman walking through a row of cars. Each time she passed a window, she turned to look at her reflection. She was compelled to look, it seemed to him. She couldn’t not look, and this struck him as beautifully human, this need for reassurance of her own existence.

Coleman Barks
Midway through the ten-week quarter, just after I had presented my first story, he said something to me that no teacher has said before or since. I waited in my chair until everyone else had left class. I still remember the pit in my stomach, a roiling mix of fear and nausea. I was full of a shameful need. I didn’t know exactly what it was I sought from him, only that I had a burning question to ask. He was looking at me, waiting for what I had to say. I swallowed hard and met his eye. “Am I any good?” I asked, sweating, even more embarrassed now that the question was out. “What do you think? Can I write?”

In truth, I don’t remember exactly how I phrased my question. It’s funny; if this were fiction, I’d have it all—smells, sounds, precise feelings and words. But this is the past and when I write about the past I find poignant feelings and sensations more often than I find actual words. I do, however, recall Coleman’s exact words. He gathered his legal pad and stack of manuscripts. He stuck his pen in his nest of graying hair.

“You’ve got it, if you want it,” he said.

My heart was beating so fast I couldn’t register his words. I barely knew what I was asking, but I certainly had no idea what he meant. What was “it”? Fame and fortune? The writing of books? Anyone could write a book. Anyone could sit down and put the words on paper. What I wanted to know was, was I any good? Should I bother? And the way he phrased that last part, “if you want it.” To me this suggested that “it” whatever it was, might not be something I ought to want.

“Can’t you feel it?” he added, looking at me. “What happens when you read?” He flashed his sad, charming smile and shuffled out the door.

That was all he said. I recall speed walking across campus, filled with adrenaline. I was thrilled. I was besieged with confusion and doubt, but I was thrilled. What he said was a thumbs up, even if it wasn’t a precise thumbs up.

Looking back, I’m shocked by my nerve. I see now that what I wanted, he could not give. I wanted a guarantee. Even at age nineteen I knew that this kind of work was different from, say, banking. I felt the difference when I sat in my dorm room or the library or the coffee shop drafting those stories for his class. Time evaporated. The world around me ceased to be confusing or scary or unwieldy. It ceased to be anything at all.

I can’t say that when I’m drafting fiction, I’m happy. What I am is absent. My ego vanishes. Even in those early years I experienced the space created in my mind as a balm, a consolation. I felt a sense of purpose, and perhaps best of all, meaning. This felt a little naughty to me. It did not feel like a job, or a thing grown-ups pursued. If I was going to pursue it, I’d better be good, and I wanted Coleman to reassure me. To tell me that I wouldn’t make a fool of myself, that I would not be wasting my time.

Of course Coleman would leave the hard work to me. The larger question I was asking him, and myself and the universe, was the question asked by every young person since the dawn of time: “What Do I Want?” No one could answer that, least of all Coleman Barks, the man who devoted his life to interpreting the works of Rumi, the spiritual teacher whose poetry explored divinity, the soul, and the pursuit of God. Coleman wrote about him, “Rumi .... wants us to be more alive, to wake up... He wants us to see our beauty, in the mirror and in each other.”

I wouldn’t have minded if he’d said, Yes Christy. You are brilliant. Keep writing. He might have mentioned how long it would all take, how much rejection would be involved. I’d have loved a hint about that low period in my early thirties, when my first novel was with an agent but didn’t sell and I caught myself reading debut novels and hoping I’d hate them. I wanted others to fail. That was a new low, using other writers’ hard work to confirm that the world was against me.

But if Coleman had said any of that, would it have been encouraging? A writer needs encouragement, maybe more than a banker needs encouragement. Finishing work takes a long time. Publishing takes even longer. Writers can be unstable, insecure people. We need positive feedback as often as we can get it. But thinking back on the koan-like comments from my first teacher, he gave me exactly what I needed, what all writers need even more than they need encouragement. They need the truth.

“Can’t you feel it?” he asked me. The truth was that I could feel it. I read my work that first time and my skin tingled. My guts churned and my scalp burned. I could feel it all right. My classmates, the grad students auditing the course, even my teacher: everybody was listening.

Christy Stillwell is the author of The Wolf Tone and the poetry chapbook Amnesia. She is the winner of the Elixir Press Fiction Prize, a finalist in the Glimmer Train Short Story Contest and the recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination, a residency at Vermont Studio Center and a Wyoming Arts Council Literary Fellowship. Her stories and essays have appeared in journals such as Pearl, River City, Sonora Review, Sou’wester, The Massachusetts Review, and The Tishman Review. Visit her online at

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

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