In this month’s issue of WD, Dinty W. Moore, in his article “MFA Insider” writes about the importance of finding a mentor in your MFA program, and extends his thanks to the teachers he found along the way when he was pursuing his own degree at LSU. Moore’s article inspired me to take this post as an opportunity to thank the fantastic teachers I’ve had along the way during my quickly dwindling time at Columbia.
One of the first things my Fiction I teacher, Joe Meno, taught us was that the word “fiction” comes from the Latin “facere,”—to shape. This distinction, he told us, is an important one. He said that fiction is not created from thin air, but formed from the baby ideas that are already there in your imagination: it’s just a matter of discovering them and shaping them into recognizable things, things that reflect your worldview and your heart. Joe encouraged me to write the first story I was ever really proud of: a fictional piece about two girls who become queens of the Northwest Side Chicago Irish parade. It was totally fictionalized, but also based on the night in 2005 when my friend Michelle and I actually were the queens of the Northwest Side Irish parade (full disclosure: there weren’t too many candidates. There usually aren’t, when a beauty pageant is held in the back room of a plumber’s union hall). Joe made me realize that even my silly history can make for a good story, if I shape it right.
The next semester, for Fiction II, I had Alexis Pride. I was utterly terrified of her at first because her intellect is palpable: Trust me when I say that this woman is ALWAYS 100% on her game! But instead of lording her knowledge over her students, she let us into it, made us privy to the secrets of writers’ lives, and in my first conference with her, when she told me a scene I’d written had made her laugh out loud, I glowed for a week—and then, buoyed by the confidence she’d given me, found the elusive ending to the story I’d been trying to write for months.
The next year, I enrolled in CRW-Censorship, which may well have been the most important class I’ve ever taken at Columbia. In this class, Don De Grazia taught me to write about the things I didn’t want to write about; to overcome my self-censors. He pointed out to us that it’s often the things we are afraid to write about that are actually our strongest material. As if to prove his point, a piece I wrote for his class, about a horrendous male stripper I’d endured at a friend’s bachelorette party, was the first piece I got published in a “major” publication. I never even would have submitted it if it weren’t for that class.
The next semester, I took Don’s Advanced Fiction class. That semester, when I did my first steeplechase, Don encouraged each of us to try out a scene in a voice different from our own. The workshop that night was legendary: I’m not sure how he did it, but I believe our entire class went into some sort of collective writerly trance—one of those weird artistic breakthroughs that writers live for. The work people read afterward that writing session was amazing, and as for myself, out of nowhere, I wrote my favorite scene I’ve ever written.
Patty McNair, my current CRW—Short Stories teacher, taught me the importance of grace in a short story, and to embrace sentimentality without falling victim to cheesiness. She had high expectations this semester, and we as her students had no choice but to meet them. Early on in the semester, I practically chained myself to the computer all weekend because it was so important to me to turn in something that would impress her. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I did manage to complete a story that incorporated the scene I’d written in the trance-inducing workshop of the previous semester. I finally found a way to anchor the scene and found that indelible satisfaction of finishing, really finishing, a piece of writing.
Last week, Randy Albers, my current Advanced Fiction teacher, held a two-hour conference with me about my steeplechase. It blew my mind how much time he’d clearly spent thinking about my story—and how much time he was willing to give to talk about it with me. He told me what worked, he helped me see what I’d missed; he pointed me toward my narrative arc, he helped me find my ending. He helped me finish my story, and all the while refused to write it for me; he guided me into discovery without ever letting me take the easy way out by telling me what to do. I turned in the finished piece tonight, and I never would have quite figured out the ending if it hadn’t been for that conference.
I don’t write this post as drooling homage to my professors (though I know it might sound that way), but to reiterate the importance of great teachers in writing programs. To me, they are the single most important force (besides your own tenacity) in achieving success in the MFA. So if you are thinking about applying to a program, investigate the professors and be ready to forge relationships with them, because they can help you more than you ever thought possible.
Of course, all writers are shaped by any number of people: not just teachers but friends, family, and fellow students—and I am going to spend some time in the coming weeks talking about all of that. It’s the Christmas season, after all. . .and I have a lot to be thankful for. But this week, in response to Dintey W. Moore’s column, I just want to say thank you to my Columbia teachers for being the mentors that helped me find the voice that has always been inside of me, just waiting to be shaped.
“Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.” –Jacques Barzun
Who are some of your favorite writing teachers, the ones who influenced and inspired you? Name them, and tell us why!