Writing Lessons

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Writing Lessons
Photo by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash

I’ve been supervising a graduating high school senior for the past month. He wanted to try his hand at being a full-time writer, bless his heart, and he’s writing a novella for his final project. At our weekly meetings, he turns over a chapter or so of writing, and we discuss the previous week’s work. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve taken the teacher’s seat, but the old neural pathways started firing right away: show, don’t tell; omit needless words; keep dialogue spare. Though my role is more advisor than teacher, I can’t help myself. At our first meeting, I bled feedback all over his manuscript in black ink. What follows is a roundabout apology.

I went to the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars to pursue my master’s degree at age 35.  We 10 fiction writers met like a murder of crows in the aerie just below the bell tower of Gilman Hall on the Homewood Campus, a sort of (reduce the use of qualifiers) crow’s nest and apogee of intellectual life. Or so it seemed. Mine was the first draft of fiction writers not to be incubated (right word?) by John Barth, the famed novelist and professor who had recently retired. I felt his absence as a tragedy (hyperbole), even though they had recruited a literary luminary who promisingly (reduce the use of adverbs) shared his initials: Julian Barnes.

I’ve kept all the evidence in an old steamer trunk in my study, safe from time’s moldering agents. I find JB’s initials in the middle of a tidy circle on my old grad school manuscripts, like a wax seal, his characteristic signature. Tucked in among the papers is a Baltimore Sun article from September 1995. I blush to think of my tender self, clipping this article, full of hope: “Barnes Turns Writer’s Eye to Baltimore. Heart and humor are his trademarks. His students are in for quite a semester.”

My daughter had just started kindergarten. As a teaching fellow, I had my own undergraduate class to plan and papers to grade in addition to graduate coursework. I was frantic with anxiety. How would I ever find the time to generate new work? I didn’t have a large stockpile of stories to draw from in a pinch. I was horribly intimidated. The first three weeks I lay in bed at night sleepless, composing a letter announcing my withdrawal from the program: While I’m grateful for the opportunity, I’m unable to manage the workload with a young child… and so on.

The protagonist had been called to a new stage of development. It was scary; it always is. But she kept showing up. While it’s my current belief that the imagination is enticed by the spirit of play, it’s equally true that deadlines force productivity. I didn’t do very good work. JB, whom we all longed to impress, was unmoved.

His handwriting, like a tideline of tiny crustaceans, is encrypted in the pages of the three short stories I wrote for the fall semester graduate fiction workshop. Twenty years later, even with readers, I have to use a magnifying glass to bring his words into focus.

My writing was “a bit plodding at times as if your heart isn’t in it.” True, that first month my imagination was fixated on the problem of how to gracefully bow out. I was more diarist than fiction writer, and it seemed unsustainable.

JB points out a smattering of clichés: the reality was grim, characters looked on in stunned silence. Parades had been rained on; bandwagons jumped on. Elsewhere, my prose was “otiose” and I had a “tendency to over-explain [my] narrative, which slows it down.”

Except when it came to writing about sex: “Shouldn’t there be more about their sex life?” he wrote. “Which is, obviously, we deduce, one way in which things aren’t perfect between them. We get the point as it is, but maybe you’re a bit over-delicate. (I mean, maybe your story is.)”

We all knew not to confuse the story’s narrator with the writer, but sometimes even the pros slipped up.

I remember that he was polite, reserved, dignified and always had the last word. After we’d all go around having a whack at each other’s stories, he’d deliver the decisive blow, as to a piñata. This is standard operating procedure in most writing workshops, the teacher withholding his opinion until the end so as not to trump the whole discussion. But sometimes he could barely contain himself—if I didn’t know better, I’d say he jumped on the bandwagon, like that time someone was trying to locate a problematic bit of description in my story, and he leapt to supply the phrase, as one who’d waited tiresomely long for his cue. “The sun hung over the mountains like a radiant navel orange,” he read, from my manuscript, then repeated the punchline with zesty pleasure.  “A navel orange!”

I don’t need a magnifying glass to bring back that memory, or the feelings associated with the following offending passage, which I share with you now in the spirit of self-sacrifice: “We stopped on the ninth green, lay down on our backs and looked up at the sky. The ground was damp, and it was like lying on a kitchen sponge. We hunted for constellations—Ursa Major, the Big Dipper, O’Ryan’s [sic] Belt.”

He had drawn a line. I follow it through the magnifying glass to its terminus at the bottom of the page where the telltale tideline forms these words on a narrow beach of margin: “Is this a joke? Orion.”

When JB said, “What did you think it was, some Irishman in the sky?” at least a few of my classmates looked down at the table, at their copies of my story upon the table. I’ve said that we met like a murder of crows, and so we did, gathering around that long seminar table cum harvest board, plucking at the offal, those awful words, and sentences. But several months into it another spirit was abroad in the camp. Crows flap about together, after all. Our class may not have been the cleverest, but we had famous esprit de corps.

I’d titled the story “Bear.” When the manuscripts were returned to me after class, several bore drawings of bears—one even included a tableau of three—two cubs cowering under a much larger bear that stood on its hind feet in attack stance, with a snarling maw and impressive canines.

On my third and final story of the semester, I received a pat on the head (“heart and humor are his trademarks,” you’ll recall). He wrote, “You should be pleased with this.”

The truth doesn’t hurt a few decades out. It’s kind of a hoot, reviewing the old comments from JB and my classmates. I’m left with tender stirrings for the old gang. Matthew, you were always ready to give the benefit of the doubt, to assume the writer was up to more than she knew. Through your generous vision, I often had the first inkling of what my stories were really about. James, you praised the way I toyed with clichés, as a device. Not really, but thank you anyway.

Mike, you wrote that I tended to overplay physical characteristics. And the example you cited: She froze, furtive eyes darting up to meet his. Okay, I rest your case.

Margaret, you noted that my protagonists all dressed the same–khaki pants and a navy blue crew-neck sweater. In my own defense, what was a would-be diarist to do?

On that note, it’s funny that no one ever believed the things that really did happen. Like that car I had going off the switchback into the ditch on a desolate stretch of road in the wilderness, the couple that had to spend the night out there and build a fire using their credit card receipts. That was for real, folks, even though I know now that it didn’t work in the story.

And that phony deus ex machina ending that every single one of you hated—the Navajo woman on the park bench who’s writing a letter and turns to ask the guy sitting next to her how to spell “peace?” That guy was me–she asked me! Though you’re right, Alex, and I chuckle reading your feedback now, hearing your voice so clearly these many years later, “While it certainly must happen, I think it would be exceedingly rare to find an old Navajo woman with bright blue eyes.”

A big shout out (cliché) to you, too, JB, and I mean this sincerely. To this day I cannot gaze upon the night sky without feeling properly humbled, which is just as it should be. In the Sun article, you said, “I’m going to encourage them to write like themselves if they can find what writing like themselves means.” Who knew it would take so long?

To my advisee, dear Xandi, I wish you Godspeed. I hope it won’t take long to figure things out. And I hope you haven’t sustained any lasting damage under my watch.

Lindsay Fleming
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