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What My Writing Teacher Should Have Told Me

December 8, 2011

I really don’t have much interest in the stuff I wrote in high school. That was long ago, and it doesn’t matter anymore. I don’t need those ideas, half-formed and never developed. I have much better ones now. Besides,  I threw most of that stuff away, never dreaming that I would take up writing again.

But fate has strange ways of reminding us where we came from. Like a message in a bottle from my younger self, I stumbled upon a short piece, no more than two hundred words, that I wrote for my creative writing class in high school, tucked in between the poetry I wrote in college.

Unexpectedly, I found myself face to face with the critique that haunts me still. My teacher, an unremarkable professor type that I barely remember, had, like a thoughtful critic marked some sections ‘good’ but then decried my melodramatic style, a comment that I obsess over to this day. I was seventeen, for cripe’s sake. As anyone who has been a seventeen-year old girl and lived to talk about it will attest, being seventeen is one big melodrama after another.

Then, in the final comments he had written, and I summarize:

‘… this is a mood piece, an excerpt. I’d like to this in the context of a story…’

I remember thinking, “But I don’t have a story. I don’t know how to make a story yet. You are the teacher-you are supposed to show me how to find the story, instead of raving on and on about how much money Stephen King is making from his novels.”

I finished the class, and did finally manage to produce something that resembled a story. But I gave up on the story after that, because the teacher didn’t find my plotting plausible. Again, offering no ideas on how to fix it.

Now, I don’t want to imply that I bear this teacher any ill will or malice. This was a community college with no pretensions of literary grandeur and I’m sure he was only doing his job. He most likely had enough troubles finding his own story and had every reason to believe that the students who signed up for a creative writing class did so because they had a story they were burning to tell.

This is me at seventeen. I'm on the left.

The thing is, I did have a story to tell. It just wasn’t the story this writing teacher expected me to have, enamored as he was of Stephen King and Mr. King’s ginormous paycheck.
Every night as I fell asleep I would tell myself my own stories, each installment only as long as the twenty minutes long it took me to drift into the land of nod. I still remember the names of the worlds in which it took place, two planets, twin planets called Tolyma and Altima, one with advanced technology, the other with untouched forests and magic. There was romance, of course, alongside evil overlords and rocket ships and alchemy. I remember writing down the names of the characters who populated these worlds, and some words of the language they spoke.

But, other than that,  I never wrote one word of these stories down. Maybe once I tried, but it didn’t sound as cool as Ursula K. LeGuin, even in her early work, which I read assiduously, and so I thought I just wasn’t cut out to write fantasy. My fantasy world wasn’t completely built yet, not all things had names, not all my characters made sense, so I thought I wasn’t ready to start writing yet.

This was what my so-called writing teacher should have been able to explain to me.

There have been many bedtime stories since then, adventures in distant galaxies, endless fairy tales with kings and knights courting ladies who masquerade as wizards, shameless trysts with movie stars. All played out for my own pleasure in the cinema of my cerebrum. Now that they are gone I can recall the details of very few of them. If I had recorded them with words, no matter how clumsily, I could play them back again.

It really doesn’t matter, now I’m here and I’m writing and I get it now. I found my own way eventually. All I want is for the world to know, those stories in your head? They mean you’re a writer. Doesn’t matter if they’re not what anyone expects you to write, write them down, even if just for yourself. My only regret is that I didn’t get to discover them sooner, because, in the words of Stephen King:

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.” 

Stephen King, On Writing

Thanks, Mr. King. I’ll be sure to choose my teachers more carefully from now on.

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