Letter 21: AOCYEUBY – Writing Class

Dear Mr. Wallace,

I’ve only taken one creative writing class in my life.  It as the last quarter of my senior year in college and I needed an elective class to fill my schedule.  My choices were Intermediate Fiction[1] or Pedagogical Grammar.  The Grammar class would have been the more practical choice since my intention was to become an English teacher.  But it was my last quarter, after all, and I wanted to try my hand at creative writing.  The first draft of my short story got ripped apart by my classmates and professor.  But after taking their criticism and rewriting the entire middle of the story, I was pretty proud of the final draft and ended up with a B+ in the class.

Reading David Lipsky’s notes from his visit to your class brought back some fond memories of my own creative writing class, but it mostly made me incredibly jealous.  I know these students of yours knew that you had just become a literary sensation, but did they realize the opportunity they had?  I’m sure some knew you were a good teacher, and others probably just took the class because they needed the credits and it fit their schedules.  But I wonder how many truly knew who it was critiquing their papers.

Now I’m not really much of a fiction writer,[2] but I really liked the advice you gave to your students.  I’ve copied my favorites below.  Most of them require no elaboration, but there are a few that I will comment on.

“As if how good a writer you are and how good a teacher you are have anything to do with each other.  I don’t think so.  I know too many really good writers who are sh***y teachers, and vice versa, to think that” (3).

I am reminded by this quote of my high school geometry teacher.  He was a brilliant mathematician, but a really crappy teacher.  He didn’t last long.

“But the job of the first eight pages is not to have the reader want to throw the book at the wall, during the first eight pages” (7).

“To have the narrator be funny and smart, have him say funny, smart things some of the time” (8).

“I’m always going back and f***ing with stuff [Wrote two full drafts longhand]” (9).

Are you freakin’ kidding me?  Two full drafts of Infinite Jest written by hand?  And you mention later how the editors and publishers cut hundreds of pages from the original text.  It makes my hand cramp up just reading that line.

Man, what I wouldn’t have given to have been in one of your writing classes.[3]  I mean I’ve learned so much by reading your stories and essays[4] and writing about them here.  But I think I’d give a kidney or something to have a few moments of your time to go through one of my own essays or stories to get your feedback.

[1] I had to get special permission from the professor to take Intermediate Fiction since I had not yet taken Beginning Fiction.  After a long explanation of my circumstances,* he agreed.  I honestly don’t think he cared whether I had taken the prerequisite course.

*My circumstances being that it was my last quarter and I only needed one elective class to fill my schedule and the Beginning class conflicted with another class that I needed to take, so will you please, please, please let me in the Intermediate class?

[2] I was as a kid.  I can remember several occasions in elementary school when I had finished my work early so the teacher told me to go write a story, I think mostly to get me out of their hair.  But I still have original copies of several of those stories, and some of them are pretty darn good.  I guess I hit my creative peak in about the sixth grade.

[3] At the time of the IJ tour and your interview with Lipsky, I was just starting college and still trying to “find myself.”  Perhaps a semester under your tutelage would have sped up that process.

[4] My proudest work has been the use of footnotes.  I still have a lot to learn, but I think I’ve come pretty far.

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