Friday, September 7, 2007

Back to School

At the beginning of the summer term at Grub Street, I ran into fiction I instructor Mike Heppner in the hallway at Grub HQ. We’d met once at a staff meeting, so we stopped to chat. Mike started with the usual question.
“What are you teaching?”
“I’m not,” I said. “I’m taking a class.”
“Cool. Whose?”
Mike blanched at this news, and I felt for him. No one likes a surprise.
I’ve been teaching memoir and nonfiction classes at Grub Street for seven years. Before that, I taught a sophomore survey course at Boston University. Then last fall I took my teaching notes, my handouts and threw most of them away. The rest went into storage. I didn’t want to teach anymore. In fact, I wasn’t sure I wanted to write anymore. Instead, I wanted what a lot of new Grub Street students want, a sense of renewal, a sense of adventure that comes from trying something new. So I stepped outside my role as teacher and signed up for a fiction class. Then another, and another. These are not easy classes, and becoming a student has given me a few insights. So here they are: the four things I learned as a Grub Street student.

1. Like everyone else, I’m afraid to suck. Every instructor has seen this. Someone comes into class with a lot of writing experience, or several clips, and they are all smiles during the introductions. By week two they sit in stiff silence, unable to read anything aloud or write anything in class. By week three, they’ve gone AWOL, claiming illness or work issues, and they never return. By contrast, the folks who come to class with a sense of humor about themselves, regardless of their levels of experience, write reams of stories, forge intense friendships, and have a rip-roarin’ good time. For seven years, I’ve been telling students to loosen up, and this was excellent advice—until I had to take it myself. There I was, sitting in Ron MacLean’s wonderful Structure of Short Fiction class, forcing myself to read out loud, with my hands shaking so hard I couldn’t see the words on the page.

2. Deadlines are erotic. I took Stace Budzko’s class 10 Weeks, 10 Stories. Doesn’t everyone? I spent the spring in a panic, plotting as fast as I could type. The housewife has to run away with the mailman. The son has to drive his father to the asylum. The girl has to dance with the ghost of George Washington. All this has to happen in writing by 5 p.m., at which point I can print it out, load the kids in the car, tear over to Staples to make 12 copies, and then hand the kids off to my husband before barreling down the Pike to get to class on time. Look at those dirty dishes, the unpaid bills, the piles of unfolded laundry, and the blinking light on my phone—some message from an angry editor. Where is my story? I’ve been awake since 3 a.m., out of bed since 4, typing, typing. I am awash in shame over the important things I have neglected to do all week. I vibrate with the fear that this story is horribly, laughably bad. And, yes, I’m also a little turned on.

3. I fear praise. Once, I asked an editor what he thought of my work, and he said, “I wipe my ass with this.” What’s worse, he took the paper and rubbed it against the seat of his pants in the universal ass-wiping gesture. One of my editors routinely returns my stories to me with parenthetical queries after each paragraph. (I don’t get it.) (This is stupid.) (You’re putting me to sleep here). His comments are in all-caps. And red. Every writer deals with an avalanche of criticism. As a result, writers who teach strive to create a classroom environment that guards against the raw pettiness we’ve faced. I always worked to praise every story, every effort before pointing out a few little things that might need work. As an instructor, I prided myself on my ability to praise and encourage everyone. As a student, encouragement scares me. My efforts as a fiction writer are uneven at best. The stories meander, the characters are clichés sent in from central casting. My narratives often wander off cliffs and drop into the abyss. I know this, and I’m petrified to face a revision armed only with vague admiration. I’m not alone. In one class, we sat around praising a fellow student’s story. We went on and on about the lyrical language, the beautiful imagery, all of which was true. We neatly skirted the fact that we had no idea what the story was about. None. Finally, the writer stopped us. “Enough,” she said. “Don’t tell me how great it is. Tell me what to do with it. I need help.” We were so relieved. We ponied up the advice, some of it off-point and mistaken, and she was thrilled to get it all.

4. Hierarchy is self-imposed. I used to like identifying myself as an instructor at Grub parties, at readings, at the Muse. What do you do? I teach here. Not anymore. Last week Mike Heppner moved our Fiction I class to the Brookline Booksmith where we watched Joshua Furst read from his new novel The Sabotage Cafe. He arrived a bit late, and looked bewildered, just like a writer. Then he opened his book and nailed us to our seats for 25 minutes. Afterward, we had class in the basement of the bookstore. We worked on our stories, surrounded by books, and by people shopping for books. As a working writer, I worry constantly about the hierarchy of success. Who has better clips? Who has more time to work? Who is younger and more talented? As an instructor I worry about being good enough to teach. As a student, none of that matters. Effort alone matters, effort and showing up on time.

Michelle Seaton


Whitney said...

Michelle, I love this! I've been signing you up for all these classes and had no idea you were up at 4am typing or that your hands shake when you read in class. I'm sure I'd feel just the same in one of your memoir classes (and hey, that's how I feel in the fiction classes too...)

The Writers' Group said...

Jesus, Michelle, this is naked. I've dealt with some nasty editors myself (let's have a beer sometime and we can compare names), but I think you win.

You're an amazing writer, and it's hugely reassuring to know you're just as scared as the rest of us.


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