In grad school, getting an MFA in writing, I cried in the office of every workshop professor I had but one. In spite of the sensitivity with which as a rule these people responded, the episodes filled me with shame. Post-cry, I assiduously avoided my teachers. When I couldn’t help but see them–in class, or in the coffee line–I tried to be nonchalant, wry, recovered, but I think mainly I projected skittishness and a sort of tense and inexplicable cheer. I was looking for guidance, and I seemed capable only of procuring first aid.
A woman named Mary taught the second-to-last workshop I took. She was quick-witted, blunt, motherly without being coddling. She had just received some special recognition and had a series of speaking engagements, and early in the semester, in order to attend these, she cancelled two classes. That felt like a lot of class to cancel given that workshops were three hours long and only once a week, and we students grew resentful. Having turned against her, we criticized her among ourselves, cataloguing the tics in her advice, her insistence on a series of “craft” principles all of us had heard before, the fact that she didn’t type up her responses to our work but handwrote them in hard-to-decipher cursive. Her motherliness, we concluded, bespoke her condescension. For a while, focusing on her shortcomings helped me avoid admitting mine: I was having a nearly impossible time sitting down to write, and when I did sit down the writing came out in dribs and drabs and was invariably hateful to me. Finally, in office hours, Mary asked me what was going on. Every time it was my turn to submit I’d turned in late, and now I was telling her I had nothing for my final round. What was up? Miserably, (crying a little), I told her I couldn’t write. In response she was briskly sympathetic, even bossy. She seemed to know exactly what to do. “Come back on Tuesday,” she said. “I have an idea, a little trick. You’ll see.”
This was exactly what I wanted to hear. Of course the genius of my mentor would be to have tricks, would be her assurance that there were tricks and that she knew which one I needed. She would know the right book to read, the right person to talk to; she would know which future among the thicket of possibilities was the right future. Part of the appeal of being mentored, I saw, was the appeal of being told what to do.
On Tuesday Mary led me past her own office to someone else’s, a small space crowded by bookshelves, a beat-up wooden desk, and a plump-stemmed, glossy-leafed family of plants. It was as pretty and bookish a place for an intervention as any, and I felt a mote of excitement. “Someone did this for me once,” she said as she gestured for me to sit, “and it changed my life.” I arranged myself behind the desk, waiting for her to take her place across from me, for us to talk, but she only handed me an open book and told me to read from the page she’d marked. When I’d finished reading, she instructed, I was to write about whatever the passage made me think of and I wasn’t to stop until she came to get me.
I don’t remember what the book was, or exactly what the passage said–it was something memoiristic, an account of a scene in the writer’s life, possibly her childhood, and there was an early memory or two, voluptuous details, a conclusion recounting regrets, later insights. In response I wrote quickly and without thinking too much, and when Mary came back I had a few pages and was still writing. She appeared to take this as confirmation that the magic had been wrought. Warmly, she encouraged me to keep going. She had to leave, but I could let myself out when I was done. After she was gone I wrote for a few more minutes and then I left myself, relieved not to have to report back. I didn’t want to disappoint her by revealing that nothing special had happened, and I didn’t want to fake an epiphany either. Some trick. I was insulted by the proposition that this was all it took to be cured. A simple solution implied a simple problem: Mary thought I should get over myself.
Later, when I sent her the pages, she told me she thought they were very good–“fluent,” she called them–and said she thought I should expand the piece and turn it in for my final workshop. So that was the scam: a low-stakes writing session that, voilá, would be bent to a higher-stakes end. If I finished the story I could turn it in on time. But I didn’t want to finish the story! I thought the fragment was stale and bad; I wasn’t interested in my subject. Stubbornly, I wrote Mary an email explaining something to this effect. I don’t remember handing anything else in instead. Did I forfeit my last turn? I think I must have.
It’s curious to me now that I wouldn’t accept her fix. A mentor promises sympathy, certainty, direction; what motivates the refusal of such gifts? Exhumed from its digital grave (FRAGS 08), the story Mary so generously duped me into writing provides some clue. I called it “A Disappointment.” In 1500 words I chronicled my early ambitions of being a dancer and their eventual frustration, describing the third floor of the Oddfellows Hall where my classes were held (the “empty threadbare theater chairs,” the “low, blue-carpet-covered stage”), briefly sketching the other students and the kind of technique I liked, and mentioning the encouragement I got from my parents and their friends. Then, on the second page, I take a sharp turn into parent-blame:
In spite of their praise of my talent, I started to believe I wasn’t good enough and never would be: I hadn’t started at age four, I’d studied modern (so loose and permissive, I thought) and not ballet, and I couldn’t take class every single day. I’d never be good because I was getting too old to be good. I was maybe twelve. When I mentioned my worries to my mother she brushed them away, a response I took as evidence of her lack of interest in my success. My parents liked that I danced, and liked that I liked it, and believed I was good, but they had nothing riding on my career as a dancer. They ridiculed those parents who scolded their children into dedication. “Gymnastics parents,” they called them. But I envied the children of gymnastics parents. How much easier it would’ve been if I had a mother who made me practice, who drove me into class every day, who took personal interest in my excellence. Instead I had parents who just wanted me to be happy.
(I should point out that my mother did drive me to class, she just didn’t want to do it every day. We lived forty minutes from town, so this wasn’t unreasonable.)
What the story is mainly about, it becomes clear after a little while, is my first dance teacher, whose name was Donna. If my parents failed me by having no particular standard of achievement, Donna (I wrote) failed me by never signaling what she thought I could achieve:
As I worried and grew older, I waited for my teacher to tell me something: to encourage me, to tell me I was special, to tell me to go to New York. One night after class I sat with her in her car and we talked for a while. I’d just started working at a coffee shop, and when I told her how much coffee I’d been drinking she warned me against it. If I didn’t want to ruin my skin like she’d ruined hers I should drink very little coffee or none at all, and I should never smoke. I *had* noticed, brushed over her nose and cheekbones, a haze of red which sharpened into precise spider capillaries on closer inspection, and I was happy to find out that it had a specific cause and a specific remedy. I said I would drink less coffee, and assured her I thought smoking was disgusting, but she seemed unconvinced. She was a New York Jew, a bit of a cynic. Not a romantic. In the car, I didn’t understand this about her yet. I waited for her blessing, and when her blessing didn’t come I didn’t imagine it was because she didn’t give blessings but because I wasn’t worthy of one.
Woe was me. Instead of going to New York, I went to college in Oregon, an hour from where I grew up, where
after some abortive attempts to study dance I quit, convinced I was too behind ever to succeed, and that, when it came down to it, I just wasn’t talented enough. I was especially disgusted by those girls who’d only started dancing in college, who enrolled in Modern I their first semester, flailed earnestly around the studio for three months, and proceeded to declare themselves dance majors. I did smoke, and I did drink coffee. My skin seemed fine.
What I don’t mention in the exercise is that by the end of college I’d seen many of the late-blooming dance majors become very good. Some joined small companies; some started their own groups. If they weren’t brilliant they were still better than I’d been four years earlier, and, more importantly, they’d made a life out of a thing they wanted to do. I hadn’t been too late at twelve, I reluctantly understood, and I hadn’t been too late at 18, and it was probably all less about how much intrinsic talent you had than about what you did with what you were allotted. Still, it only occurred to me to apply this message retroactively, to my already-abandoned dance career, and not to my present or my future. I was late to writing, late to an MFA, late to publishing.
The excerpts show a child who wants to be both approved of and seriously pushed. The adult writer, it’s clear, feels something similar. Mary’s too-transparent trick didn’t work on either score: the task was too easy to flatter my sense of my own torment and her praise was too easily won to be trusted. I may have shown up crying, but still I felt I was being babied.
I disliked what Mary had gotten me to write for two reasons: a), the piece was drawn directly from my own life, and I meant to be an inventor, not a recorder; and b), I thought dance was too womanish to write about. It was like writing about abortion or eating disorders. Did I want to join the next crop of young lady narcissists? I wasn’t interested anymore in my failure as a dancer because I was too interested in my failure as a writer, and if I noticed that they were more or less the same thing it was only for long enough to feel embarrassed about it. I don’t think I could have liked anything I wrote for Mary, no matter how fictional and no matter the subject. To move on with the fragment would have been to let her succeed in helping me when I wanted to believe I was past help–because being helped, I secretly knew, required taking risks, that cliché that describes the flat fee of achievement. Continuing would also have been to accept that what I’d done accurately reflected my ability, that what I could do in hour’s work was simply what I could do. I was afraid to find out that what I made was nothing too special and therefore afraid to make anything.
So it’s true that the trick failed to work, or I failed to let it. I was a bad mentee. And yet, while this can hardly be attributed to a single freewrite on a November afternoon, it’s also true that I didn’t stay totally blocked. Eventually it sank in that no torment is so exalted it can’t be relieved by a utilitarian tip or two. Responding to existing work really is easier than writing out of a vacuum, and you really can trick yourself into writing the scary thing by first pretending to write the unscary one. Two months later, according to the file’s date stamp, I wrote, of my own volition, something about an anxious young pianist (“Dashed Hopes,” reads the file name), in which “Edith,” overhearing her parents’ conversation, finds out she isn’t a prodigy. This story also remained unfinished, so we can’t know if “Edith” forges ahead after her setback (though the title isn’t promising). But eventually I did finish a story. Of course I found it unsatisfying, too, and given a chance I’d also make fun of its premise. But that hasn’t prevented me–at least not entirely–from writing some more.