All the might have beens

Growing up, I heard more than once about my mother’s writing teacher in her freshman year of college, the one who wrote “Stick to prose” on her first set of poems, the one who made her give up on writing for ten years. Since my mother went on to become a poet whose work was widely anthologized and translated into multiple languages, the lesson was always clear: no matter what authority a professor may seem to wield, they don’t get to tell you whether or not you can be a writer.

So when I encountered my own classroom demon in my freshman year, I didn’t let him phase me. The class rule was that he would choose which stories to read aloud for critique, and although I was one of the few students who submitted every week (and always offered constructive criticism to other students), he hated science fiction and fantasy so much that he went through the rest of the class roster twice, going on three times, before he grudgingly read one of mine or of Susan’s, the only other speculative fiction writer in the class. At the end of the year, he held a party at his house and invited all his other students, but left the two of us off the list. And since he was the main fiction professor at the school, I had no choice but to take him again the following year.

He didn’t stop me from writing. I knew better than that. But he stopped me from believing that I could trust writing teachers to see past their disgust at the genre I wrote in to actually read my work or teach something of value. He was the reason I decided to go it alone, not majoring in English, avoiding MFA programs for years, just writing and submitting my work with no feedback from more experienced mentors. Avoiding teachers who might be like him has made my path a lot slower, harder, and lonelier than it needed to be.

He died this week, in his late eighties. Calculating based on his obituaries, he completely stopped writing fiction when he got tenure, thirty years before he met me, fifty years before he died. I can’t help thinking how sad that sounds. Did he secretly hate writing? Was he blocked but felt like teaching was the only way to pay the bills? Did he feel like a fraud, or just divorced from his life? Was he taking out his insecurities on his students?

I don’t really know how to feel about his death. I hope, for his sake, that he had students who liked him, who will mourn him. But the best thing I can say about him is he taught me how not to teach.

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