Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Milestones in My Writing Career

It is an early Monday morning in October 1971.

With my heart in my throat, I brush past a zillion faceless strangers and come to a stop in front of an imposing three-story building. I double check the name on its facade, comparing it with my class schedule.

Right. Humanities Hall.

Next I ascend a flight of stairs and make my way down the proper corridor, finally reaching my destination.

It is the first day of college, and I am terrified.

Somehow I force myself to open the door and step inside. Instead of the set-up I'm used to--rows of chairs facing a blackboard--I discover one large table at which perhaps eight people are sitting. I stumble to a seat.

Quickly I learn that this "section" class is run not by the professor but by a T.A. (teaching assistant). I relax a little, realizing that my only encounters with the head honcho will occur in the relative anonymity of a huge lecture hall on Thursdays. Small chance I'll ever even meet him.

That Thursday, the professor approaches the podium, makes a few introductory remarks, then does something startling: he plays a recording of Rod Stewart's Maggie May followed by James Taylor's Fire and Rain. Love songs both, he points out, but written in widely disparate "voices."

I so get it.

Since this is a creative writing course, we are instructed to mimeograph (mimeograph!) our stories for sharing in our discussion class. I put this off as long as possible, namely because my experience thus far is with writing romance and somehow I'm pretty sure romance ain't gonna fly at the university level. (This sad fact is confirmed when another student brings in her lame story about Diane and David. The unstated ridicule in the room is palpable.) So, I write a story titled The Farm, and in it I mimic the tone and what I call pointlessness of material I've read in high school.

The day comes when I can't put off sharing my story any longer. I arrive in class with trembling hands and erratic heartbeat, knowing my colleagues have come prepared to rip it apart.

But it gets worse.

The professor--the one who exists in my mind only on Thursdays--has chosen this day to sit in our class.

Kill me now.

I don't remember much about the story, although I still have a copy of it somewhere. I recall describing the heroine's brother as looking like Rock Hudson but with a gap between his teeth. And it seemed appropriate for the heroine to wear a halter top, but first I had to determine precisely what a halter top was. Finally, I remember something about the heroine studying a fly as it rose from a gatepost to wing its way down a road into the distance.

Likewise, much of the ensuing class discussion escapes me.

Except for one thing.

I remember distinctly the professor saying that the ending brought the story full circle and made the whole thing work.

For days, I basked in the compliment.

And although I never took another course from this gentlemen--nor any writing courses for that matter--I'll always be thankful he didn't squash my spirit. And hell, he makes it possible for me to say a Pulitzer Prize nominee once complimented a story I wrote.

Oakley Hall passed away this week. Before retiring in 1990, he put the writing program at UC Irvine on the map.

1 comment:

Reagan said...

Aww, what an awesome experience, and you really captured the college student mentality. :) I still remember that I was late to my very first class at Vandy! gasp! The panic! The fear!