Monthly Archives: September 2015

On Workshops and Professors

I saw a diagram recently on a friend’s Facebook page about the writing process. In particular, number five stuck out to me: http://www.buzzfeed.com/ninamohan/charts-that-perfectly-sum-up-being-a-creative-writing-maj?bffbbooks#.dvdOBPjQLO

Why, you ask? It’s my life.

After the summer and a particularly good group of writers in a long distance writing workshop over video chat, I was feeling pretty enthusiastic about my writing again. I had a good grasp on what my biggest problem was, the fact that I just want to dump all of my trauma into the essay and then run away and leave the reader holding the bag. The most illuminating feedback I received over the summer was that my writing can be “like throwing a bunch of punches at the reader and then never offering them an ice pack.” It made perfect sense to me. I write about these sucky things, and then never give the reader 31 year old me, the me in the now. I make the reader sad, and I generally leave them there. Armed with this insight, I made some edits to one of my more recent pieces of work and then jumped at the chance to go first this semester when my new writing workshop professor asked for volunteers. Yay new semester! Yay new professor! Yay new class with new feedback!

My zest for school dampened pretty quickly, with the gloom of last year quickly settling back in once I was in the classroom. I promptly stuck my foot in it with my new writing professor as I was passing out my essay. I tried to tell her how excited I was to take her class because of all the fantastic things I had heard about her, and it must have come out wrong, because she said that she felt like I was pressuring her for feedback and that she was now so uncomfortable she didn’t want to read my piece.

My professor. Didn’t. Want. To. Read. My. Piece.

I was completely crushed, and I sat in shock for the rest of class, playing with my phone inside my bag. This woman who had been incredibly built up by my peers was yet another let down in a school of let downs. That night, I went home wondering if she would even read my essay. I had an extra copy left over after it had made its way around the classroom, and I told myself that she hadn’t even taken one. It was a terrible, horrible, no good week of waiting that included seeing said professor in the hall and having her look right through me like I wasn’t even there. I wanted to scream after her “I WAS JUST TRYING TO TELL YOU HOW EXCITED I WAS TO FINALLY TAKE YOUR CLASS BECAUSE EVERYONE SAID YOU WERE AMAZING AND GAVE THE BEST FEEDBACK.” But I didn’t. I didn’t say anything at all.

Went to class the next week and discovered that she had indeed read my piece. The workshop went okay; it wasn’t the worst one ever. (There’s a blog about THAT workshop somewhere…) The professor was actually really nice. She asked my permission to read out loud scenes depicting rape. She discussed the piece with a respectable amount of decorum, especially compared to my workshop the previous semester where it was suggested the sex was consensual. And then, as I do after every workshop, I immediately pulled out her written feedback on the train home.

She called my use of the word “rape” too harsh. She said that it ran the risk of alienating the reader, and she suggested that I remove it, along with any graphic depictions of violence. I wanted to drop the essay onto the subway floor and grind it under my shoes. I wanted to rip off the outfit I had carefully picked out because workshop and scrub the makeup I had applied between class and dog walks right off my face. I wanted to quit. Too harsh. The word rape was just too harsh for the reader to handle, the word that I spent forever learning how to be comfortable saying was “too harsh.”

I cried. It was the first time in a long time that workshop feedback made me cry. I decided that I would never again work on that essay. I told myself that I would never have a thesis advisor, that all my dreams in terms of that were completely out the window.

The following week was a whirlwind of school-related disasters, culminating in the moment when the head of the program called me into her office to tell me that my workshop professor had called me high maintenance and said that my writing was disturbing.

#crushed.

I gave consideration to quitting graduate school for what had to be the hundredth time. And then I made a decision. I emailed my professor. I apologized for whatever grievous offense I had committed, even though I wasn’t sorry at all. She wrote me back thanking me. After class last week, she approached me.

“So what’s the deal? With…this?” She gestured from herself to me and back again.

“I …. I ….” I opted for the honest route. “Look. The head of the program said that you called me high maintenance, and I was really offended. Because I’m not. Like I said in my email, I just wanted to learn from you. And I’m sorry if I stuck my foot in it the first day. I really meant to say all of the things I said in my email—how awesome I had heard you were, how excited I was to be in your class. And it didn’t come out that way. I—“

“Wait,” she interrupted me. “She said I said WHAT?”

It turned out that the program director had lied to me. Or, well, SOMEONE had lied to me. My workshop professor and I talked in the stairwell for over half an hour and hashed out our garbage; I decided that she is what I will be in twenty years—nervous around people, but a strong writer with awesome feedback. We hugged. We made up. We decided that the program head was trying to say anything she could to make me her thesis student. We both apologized to each other for everything that had gone wrong.

It occurred to me as I walked home, once again, that workshop didn’t mean nearly as much as I thought it did. That feedback could be taken wrong. That I was only as good a writer as I let myself be.

I am only as good of a writer as I let myself be.

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On Time

My grandma taught me to volunteer from a young age. Every Monday, we did Meals on Wheels together. We would go to the assisted living center, take the service elevator to kitchen lugging an enormous cooler and a rolling cart, and load ourselves up with meals for people who couldn’t leave their home for whatever reason. We put the hot meals into the cooler so that they could stay warm, and the cold meals went into the cart. I put the cooler in the backseat with me, along with a stack of hand towels so I could handle the hot containers pain free. Grandma would drive to each house, and then we would both pop out with our respective parts of the meal and deliver it to its intended recipient.

There was one particular man on our route that still sticks out to me even now. I can’t remember his name now, so I’ll call him Herman. Herman was very old, at least, old to my eleven or twelve year old self, but he was always incredibly nice to me. His apartment reminded me a lot of my mom’s—there was stuff everywhere. Giant stacks of newspaper taller than I was lined the walls. In order to give Herman his meal, we had to open the door, holler up the stairs, wait for him to holler back, and then wind our way up and through the maze to where he was always sitting at the kitchen table. Every Monday at 12:30pm, he was always in the same spot, the same chair, reading his newspaper. As a kid, I used to wonder if he ever left the house.

One Monday, Grandma and I were slightly late getting to Herman’s. The meals hadn’t come to the kitchen on time, and they’d made us late. She opened the door, and we slipped inside. “Hello??” she yelled from the bottom of the stairs. “Meals on Wheels!”

For the first time, there was no answer. She tried again, and then a third time. By this point, my hands were burning through the towels I had wrapped the container. “Maybe he’s not home,” I suggested, desperate to put the food down.

“He might have had a doctor’s appointment and forgotten to mention it,” she agreed. We decided to go upstairs and leave his food in the kitchen where he would see it right away when he came back.

Herman’s staircase was only big enough to go up single file, and it was barely even big enough for that. This meant that when Grandma stopped short at the top of the stairs, I couldn’t see the reason why. She very quietly told me to go back to the car, and she turned to place the cold food on top of the hot stuff I was still clutching. Herman was sleeping, she said, and I had to be careful not to wake him up. I did what she said and went back to the car, where I sat quietly with the food in my lap wondering why Grandma wasn’t coming down. I got so bored, I pulled out my book and started reading. Eventually other people showed up, and Grandma got in the car and started the engine again.

“Did you wake him up? Should we bring him his food?”

“No, sweetheart.” She clipped her sunglasses on over her glasses. “He doesn’t need the food today.”

I took the sleeping idea at face value, and only later as I thought back did it occur to me that Herman was not sleeping at all. Herman was dead. I thought about that day a lot, about how we never know how much time we have left. I wonder how long he would have sat there if we hadn’t come that day to deliver the food. We would never know the exact circumstances of his death, the mark that he had left on the world. We would never know anything other than the fact that he hated the juice that came with his meal and that he liked to horde all of the newspapers.

My grandma died on her living room sofa at approximately 8:45 the morning of September 14th, 2015—over 20 years after that day with Herman. She had just made a phone call to a friend, leaving a message that detailed her excitement for the beautiful day and the bridge club she would be attending that afternoon. Her morning pills were resting next to her on the arm of the couch, and a plate of toast was in her lap with one bite missing from the piece on top. The medical examiner told the people who found Grandma that her face was peaceful, that deaths like these were her favorite because she knew the person didn’t feel any pain. I like to think that this was the case; I also like to think that all deaths are this way, even though I know they aren’t.

My grandma taught me a lot of lessons growing up, but it’s the ones like this that really mean something. The idea that everyone is a person who deserves care, who deserves to be loved. I didn’t really think about these things before, all of these random things that I learned. But I’m a better person because of my grandma and the things that we did together.

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