Monday, February 28, 2011

My First Time: Caroline Leavitt

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.  Today's guest is Caroline Leavitt whose new novel Pictures of You hit The New York Times' bestseller list last week and is gathering praise from critics and readers alike.  Her other novels include Girls in Trouble, Coming Back to Me, Living Other Livesand Meeting Rozzy HalfwayHer essays, stories and articles have appeared in Salon, Psychology Today, New York Magazine, Parenting, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Chicago Tribune, Parents, Redbook, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and New Woman.

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


  1. I'm glad Leavitt went on to finish her book (which is a fabulous book), but I can't see flippant criticism benefiting many young writers. I'm with Wallace Stegner who said, "Every student has a right to be listened to and be told honestly whether what he has written strikes no sparks or few or many...before he (the teacher) discourages anyone, he had better remember how intimate a thing writing is and how raw the nerves that surround it."

  2. With experiences like that, it's no wonder that Caroline is one of the most generous, encouraging writers I have the pleasure to know.

    Let's call Jack's behavior what it is: It's abuse masquerading as instruction.

  3. I agree with Stegner. I, and another writer I know, were publicly accused of having plagiarized the writing we'd proudly turned in to our junior high English teachers. Although we're both published now, the experiences were so traumatic that neither of us wrote again until mid-life.