WRITING ADVICE: The Teacher and the Barn


I applied because of her. I had written two stories up until then, little things I never dared reread. But somehow I got accepted.

In our first class, we did the classic writing exercise: Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has been killed in war. Don’t mention the son, war, or death. It sent a message: fiction transcends words. It’s the negative space, how we dance around the pillars of our life, that creates meaning.

She said too many college students write about waking up, having sex, then drinking a latte. So I wrote of people beyond my privileged world: con men and depraved politicians and deformed babies. I wrote a preposterous story centered on ecstasy, even though I had never seen it, much less consumed it. I wanted to write a story she’d remember.
One day, I sent a piece with a placeholder ending: “not sure what I’m doing here”. She wrote back, “If this ending is supposed to be post-modern, I don’t like it. If it’s unfinished, finish it.” I did as she asked, pushed beyond what came easily, and the work strengthened tenfold.

I studied with her for three years, the last semester in a three-person workshop where I wrote a 90-page novella. She invited us to her home and we got drunk on wine and full on lasagna and tiramisu. Our class bought her a bottle of scotch, the most money I had ever spent on a single item at the liquor store.

Two years later, her newest book came out and I was living in Connecticut, working in marketing by day and writing my novel by night. She had an event in the library the next town over and I went, eager to catch up. A local television station interviewed me and I quoted her books with my hands giddily clasped over my chest.

I sat towards the front of the lecture hall-style room and when she finished reading, I raised my hand to ask a question. She called on me—“Yes?”—and I looked behind me, thinking she intended someone else. I expected something different: “Oh, Jess!”, “Everyone, this is one of my favorite students!”.

But she just blinked, waiting for me to get on with it. I continued with my question, hoping the sting didn’t crack my voice.

When I reached the head of the book signing line, I launched into how good it was to see her, what I was up to, how I was so excited to read her latest novel. She smiled and said, “Do you have a business card?”
I fumbled for one and as she signed my book, I saw her peek at my card for reference. She had forgotten my name. She said take care and thanks for coming and I left the library like everyone else, with a couple words, a smile, a signed book for $24. That and a constant flow of tears.

There could have been a million reasons why she didn’t recognize me: she wasn’t expecting a student in suburban Connecticut, my hair was ten inches shorter. She had hundreds of students, but I only had one of her.
Her book sat on my shelf for a year until I picked it up. But when I read it, my heart ached over every line. The luscious language, the vibrant story, the characters that had her wit and warmth. Everything that drew me to writing was in those pages.

Over the years, that sting has lessened. My debut novel is in stores and I too have blanked on people’s names at author events. I hope they don’t take it personally. Sometimes, I’ve realized, you need to focus on what’s there—the barn, the son, a life’s purpose found—instead of what’s not.

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