Confessions of a Creative Writing Professor
Part 1: My Life As a Student Writer
By Gillian Murray Kendall
When I was an undergraduate at Stanford University, my teacher in Creative Writing 101 encouraged me, praised me, told me my writing was strange and asked me out on a date. The class was a heady, unsettling and new experience and I took full advantage of all it had to offer, except the invitation to date the professor.
In that class, I produced my first good little piece of writing—the story takes place in Chinatown, in San Francisco, and the protagonist finds a black and white photograph in the gutter. There wasn’t much of a plot, but the imagery was interesting.
I don’t remember much about the story beyond that. The fragment, in mimeo form, has long since been put away in a folder somewhere in my basement (mimeos no longer exist—they were a way of duplicating typed pages by typing on something called “purples,” which were attached to the drum of a machine, and…never mind). Although the story has faded, however, I clearly remember the way in which it was infused with the energy, effort and fear that belongs to many classes called Creative Writing 101.
For me, creative writing in high school had not been a particularly serious business. But in my college Creative Writing 101 class, for the first time, the professor insisted I own my writing by reading it aloud. He insisted that I respect my fictional worlds and the language I used to create them. Finally, he insisted that I respect and begin to own the tradition of writing in English, to which I, through the act of writing, de facto belonged.
And it would not be an exaggeration to say that I was handed all the tools I needed to write well in my undergraduate days, in Creative Writing 101. I didn’t always recognize what those tools were, and I didn’t always know how to employ them, but they were carefully packaged for me, either for present use or, perhaps, for rediscovery years later. Certainly without Creative Writing 101, I would never have written The Garden of Darkness, a young adult novel of friendship and evil (Ravenstone, June, 2014). In writing the book, it turned out I hadn’t just been given tools like writing tips with which to write, I had learned the tool of perseverance—through revision after revision after revision.
Tools are great. But Raymond Carver makes it clear in his wonderful essay, “Creative Writing 101,” that a teacher who is a writer—published or not—can be better than a whole toolbox full of shiny new wrenches and screwdrivers. Carver’s piece draws a wonderful picture of his own writing teacher, the then obscure, the now famous, John Gardner. Carver felt that when he was working on a story under Gardner’s supervision, the whole world revolved around that short story. He felt that his talent was singled out. And, indeed, when a student writer has a conference with the professor of the class, that’s the way she should feel. That’s the way I felt.
As a, now, professor of Creative Writing 101, as a former student of Creative Writing 101, I can agree with Carver unequivocally that a good teacher counts for more than the usual mantras (show don’t tell; be judicious with adverbs; make sure a reader knows who’s speaking even without dialogue tags). These tools, which I’ll explore more closely in my next installment, are lumpish things if they confer no actual desire to write. What’s a hammer without a nail? And behind the creation of many manuscripts is an internalized teacher’s voice, a voice that says, “You can do this. You can do it well. Keep writing.” A little judicious praise from a professor teaching Creative Writing 101 can motivate a writer for the rest of her life.
In one of those odd experiments that scientists do, it was shown that rats that press a lever and always get food will press the lever when hungry. Rats who press the lever and never get food soon cease to press the lever. But rats who are rewarded with food on a sporadic basis NEVER GIVE UP. They will press that lever until doomsday.
Writers aren’t so very different from rats. Praise for all writing soon curbs a student’s enthusiasm because he knows that, despite what the professor may say, not everything he produces is equally good. Eventually this student will write mostly when the deadlines come. No praise at all, on the other hand, will soon discourage a writer, and she will often stop writing after a while. But judicious praise, applied where stories show real flashes of potential, of inspiration, of brilliance will keep a writer going forever.
It happened to Raymond Carver.
And it happened to me.
As I went on to get my MA at Stanford—and participated in the Creative Writing Workshop there—I learned a lot more about the problems (and the good stuff too) in my writing. I was exposed to wonderful teachers, who all had an impact on my writing: Nancy Huddleston Packer (mother of the writers George Packer and Ann Packer), Albert Guerard, John L’Heureux, Robert Stone, and others.
One particular experience stands out.
In a class taught by Robert Stone, author of, among other books, Dog Soldiers, (one of the best books written about the Vietnam War and, therefore, a genre that could not be further from my own), I wrote a short story call “The Oxen Moved Their Heavy Tails.” I liked it. The story eventually gave rise to the title of my Creative Writing Master’s Thesis: “Wilbur Mason Was Ate By Snakes.”
I presented my story in class and received interesting feedback. I knew my fellow students well by then—and their writing styles, and their likes and dislikes. Their criticisms did not squelch me that day, nor did their praise—which was always measured and never fulsome—make me believe this story was anything special.
A few days later, Robert Stone summoned me to his office.
To say I was nervous—well, there are no analogies that can adequately convey my state. I had no idea of what to expect.
I was almost pathologically shy at the time, so I was worried about being nervous as well as about the possibility that he might be about to drum me out of the class. His purpose in summoning me was completely unknown.
After all, none of us knew this Robert Stone person well. As I remember it, unlike our other teachers, he didn’t go out for beer and burgers with us. He didn’t advertise his office hours. No hint of a manuscript in process every made its way into our class, and no mention of a writing project ever crossed his lips.
I knocked at his door.
He sat in a chair in front of a desk piled high with folders and papers. There wasn’t much there by way of decoration.
I was profoundly aware that I was in the presence of a renowned, a really brilliant writer.
And I couldn’t say a word.
I don’t remember that he said anything by way of introduction, but he took from his desk a copy of “The Oxen Moved Their Heavy Tails,” and slapped it down in front of me.
“If you can write an ending like that,” he said, “You can be a writer.”
I have never forgotten those words.
I wrote some heart-felt words of acknowledgment to him in The Garden of Darkness, but I was too shy to send him a copy. Perhaps he never saw the acknowledgment—probably not. He died on January 20, 2015, six months after the book’s publication.
With 13 words, Robert Stone changed the way I saw myself and see myself to this day.
I’m a writer.
He changed the course of my life.