The Guru

Hello....I feel like I need to say hello, is that weird/undone? I've been doing very rudimentary research regarding starting a blog, have read lots of great advice (more so from other bloggers like my friend Sarah, who has a great piece on writing for your audience here), various “how to’s” and quite a few “Oh, you think you can start a blog do you – here are seven hundred things not to do that we know you've probably already done anyway, mwaahaha. Now buy my E-book!” sort of things….I’ve read that my initial attempt at a blog will result in abject failure if I do not come up with my “niche" – but at the moment I’m just kind of not caring. Would I like to learn to do this well and not take a wrong turn at every opportunity? Of course. And maybe eventually that means that I will sit down and just write about films and nothing but films, or stripey tops and nothing but stripey tops (Disturbingly not an impossible thought).

My main motivation for this blog is to force myself to write, to re-discover my voice maybe if I have one. To give myself goals, topics I think I might have something of interest to share, to tighten up the rusty writing tools. Not to give the impression I don’t write. I've spent the past few years writing rather a lot of film, music, and other reviews on one of those consumer sites that mostly only the members read. I have a very messy, 90% finished memoir of my successful battle with Non-Hodgkins lymphoma ten years ago. I am a horrible self- editor though as may be obvious, so it has become a bit of a curate’s egg. But I probably would like to share at least some of it at some point, to get confirmation of its merits or lack thereof. Or simply to put it out there, because I need to.

I guess I should worry less about what I’m supposed to be writing and just do it. That’s always the deceptively simple advice that you hear from the wise ones, and sometimes it’s easy to get lost in your head and forget it. My all-time favorite (so my U.K. MS Word makes me say favourite, but Weebly is American so says it must be favorite - this is my life agh). Anyway, sorry - In college (UMASS Amherst), I had this English professor. He was my favorite (favourite!), teacher.

I took an American lit course with him my freshman year, and he was singularly the most compelling teacher in the dept. He was passionate, he was (and is) a wonderful writer himself, and he was selfless with his time and responses to whatever drivel you were trying to pass off as critical thought. And he liked my stuff (pretty sure he made everyone feel this way). He was a complete guru (I have a whole thing about being drawn to (non-cult-y) guru type thinkers). He sat on his desk in lotus in the most unpretentious, professorially inspiring way. He had Persian rugs and a futon in his office (again it sounds weird/cliched but honestly was not). You could talk to him about writing until the cows came home, and he always imparted little pearls of wisdom. He belonged on Oprah as far as I was concerned. He was the first teacher since my high school English teacher Mr. W. to inspire me completely, like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, a man born to teach.

I had a slightly unusual college trajectory, in that after my sophomore year I dropped out and went to live in NYC for a year. An opportunity arose to live with a friend, so I chased my acting dream along with her. I was unhappy in college at that point for various reasons. So I left Amherst behind, taking the year off that I wasn't sure would lead me back. But somehow, I don’t quite remember other than a combination of pressures, I returned to school. I never gave myself much thought as a writer (I was an actress dahling), but something about my professor stuck in my head (and no it wasn't like that – I had other crushes on other professors, oh yes, but this man felt more like a spirit guide Santa except he was Jewish but you get the gist?). He had potent wisdom and mystery.

At any rate, I had to take intro to Creative Writing as a requirement I think. It was probably that or another round of Chaucer. So my first C.W. class was full of mostly people not very interested in being there. I felt sorry for the teacher, because he was very engaged and earnest (and well, hot), and me being one of the few students who did the assignments with more than minimal effort, we struck up a rapport. He encouraged me back towards Professor C.’s writing class the following semester (my last). As it was “Advanced” Creative Writing I had never felt quite qualified to apply for such a class. I just never thought of myself as a "writer". Sure, if someone told me to sit down and write a short story or poem I would, but I was (and am) so lazy when it comes to fiction. But Professor C. had chosen my Kerouac pastiche all those years ago from the pile to read as the best example, and it made me shyly proud, and I never forgot him.

He, unsurprisingly, had forgotten me entirely in the three years since I had taken his class, and I had to give him a portfolio of my writing to be allowed into the class (in typical me fashion I had procrastinated on signing up, terrified of rejection, until the first day of semester had begun). He glanced through it quickly, asked me why I wanted to write, and that was that. My writing class was no different than any other workshop writing class I’m sure, we had one or two amazing writers, and then everyone else. Each week we had various prompts for stories, but also as the course progressed we were encouraged to continue working on things we felt inspired to develop. Professor C. would have us read selected excerpts aloud, sometimes reading our own work, sometimes our classmates'.

We had little reading assigned – occasionally a short story or poem, and the odd essay. The only book given was Anne Lamott’s excellent Bird by Bird. But mostly we were expected to write, to not stop writing and to turn something in week after week whether we thought it was any good or not. I always secretly felt that mine were in the “unpolished turd” category, but to my shock and initial horror, from the start Professor C. was picking my stories to read aloud on a regular basis. Initially I thought he must be using me as some sort of example of what not to do. Surely my thinly veiled real life melodramas were pulp of the lowest order?

I became paranoid that other students in the class would begin to think I was teacher’s pet, actually dreading when he would say my name as the next selected reading of the week. I was so obviously not as good as quite a few of the other students, and I felt embarrassed for anyone to read my silly little stories with their predictable narrative arcs and sometimes pat endings. But I did begin to see a pattern emerge of maybe why he kept picking my work. My stories, more often than not, had a beginning, a middle and end. It was (I told myself) as simple as that. The most talented writer in the class by far, a boy from Maine, had a very rich tale of a couple in a rural farmhouse that was never-ending. His writing was mesmerizing, his characters fleshy with description and import. Each week he told a tiny piece of their story, and the class sat dumbfounded (or I did anyway) at his skill. But some weeks my work would get picked over his, and I would glance apologetically in his direction. He was a writer, a real writer, born to write and breathe, in that order.

Professor C. would have weekly one on one sessions with us and wrote unbelievable amounts of feedback on everyone’s work – some weeks you would get a two or three page handwritten note attached to your work, and it felt like the world made sense if he told you things were good. His praise was heartfelt and encouraging, and made what you were writing seem worth deeper examination. The absolute worst was when he had nothing much to say, as he did one week when I had phoned in a particularly weak tale of two girls on a road trip whose main event was running out of toilet paper or some such non-importance. It went nowhere, anyway.

Looking back I was probably trying to impersonate the very talented writer who didn't need his story to have a beginning, middle and end. I knew it was bad, truly bad, when he didn't read it in class. And I realized how spoiled with attention and praise I had become. I was angry with him for not giving me my due, for spurning me, even though I knew the writing was lazily bad. Maybe I wasn't a writer; after all, maybe I was just a poser. I lost some faith. I detached myself slightly, my fragile ego bruised. “I don’t care what he thinks”, I told myself. I had gone from the heady heights of doing no wrong to being distinctly less than. The jig was up, my phony attempts at writing could no longer hide the fact I had nothing much to say really. Holden Caulfield, I get you (btw - while watching an episode of Mad Men last night, hubby turns and says "Glen - he is The Catcher in the Rye(/Holden)." Mind blown.).

Oh sure, I could sit and write, but I didn't know where it came from, I didn't know what it meant. There was very little forethought involved. I would not be troubling Saul Bellow anytime soon. And then slowly I began to try again, and the last thing I ever wrote (which I have no memory of what it was about), he had us read in class. And all of a sudden it mattered to me very much again, and I was no longer ashamed of my work being heard. I believed maybe I had something to say, and it was slightly less terrifying to admit or share it.

I doubt this man had any idea how much I wanted to impress him, so much so that it clouded my writing at times. The last time we saw each other was a final meeting in his office, one of those “Go off into the world young one” type scenes you see in films, where the master imparts wisdom to the student. I was hungry for any words of advice he might have for my future, determined that our last moments would carry me through with inspiration and guide me towards my destiny. Would he tell me I was a wonderful writer and the world was waiting for me?

No. This man of effusive words, of endless advice and wisdom, all he said, in the end, was “Don’t ever stop writing.” Silence. "Oh o.k. what else?" was my immediate thought. I don't exactly recall, but I must have said something to the effect because I do have a memory of him reiterating it, "That's it." and smiling his slightly jarringly beatific smile. I won't lie, I didn't get it then. I smiled sort of blankly and left his office, feeling slightly deflated. I was young and it seemed so...simple. Many years later, I think I'm starting to understand what he meant.

*Photo credit : care of Quotes Everlasting Flickr creative commons

1 comment

  1. Nice post! I especially like your Socrates quote. :)
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