I took two semesters of English in college needlessly. It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
The University of Arizona was slow to acknowledge my IB scores. Meanwhile, the English department used Nogales High School seniors as guinea pigs for a gateway program into the honors program. Instead of writing a timed essay in a crowded lecture hall, we had to put together portfolios of our work. Even if we had no intention of going to the U of A. An essay, a poem, a piece of fiction, etc. all from scratch. Just to prove ourselves worthy of honors English.
My portfolio got selected to get published as a good example. The head of the program, Ann something or other, had selected it herself.
So when it came time to sign up for English (on the telephone with six digit codes because I’m old), I took her class.
She was a cold, heartless woman who hated my writing and gave me a B. I didn’t care so much that she hated my writing. By the age of 18, I had given up on creative writing since literature had already given up on me. I treated creative writing as a joke.
My senior year of high school, the entire class had to write timed essays in English and Spanish to graduate. I wrote the English language essay as a diary entry of a woman who lived in a trailer park in Hope, Arkansas. She loved Jesus, Bill Clinton and Hank Williams in that order. I wrote the Spanish essay from the viewpoint of Yolanda Saldivar, the fan-turned-assassin of Selena Quintanilla.
I didn’t like writing. I wasn’t good at it. I wasn’t creative. So I’d make a joke out of it to show everyone how little I cared. And Michael was the creative one. Not me. I was the big mouth. And a smart ass. And that was about it.
But a B? In a class? What the fuck? And then I had to take a second semester of writing? What did I care about writing? I was going to be a lawyer. I didn’t need to be creative. I just needed to win.
Second semester I had a grad student for a teacher. His name was Jeremy Bushnell. He was a young intellectual with a blond ponytail from central casting. A little subversive. A little cool.
My writing was probably awful, but he liked it, I think. And he was that trope of a teacher who exposed a recalcitrant smart ass/big mouth to ideas she would never have entertained if he hadn’t been a punk from Philly. Like hip hop. And A Natural History of The Senses. And My Dinner With André.
I never read for class and my writing was bad, but he liked some of it. I wrote a story about waking up in my dorm room bed next to D, and crying a little because I was so happy. But I’d woken him up by crying so I had to pretend I’d been having a bad dream.
I think Jeremy liked me as a kid. Not as a woman, just as this punk kid with a big mouth. He invited me to the party when he defended his thesis, but I never went. I didn’t feel cool enough to go.
I wrote to this grad student, now professor last year. I didn’t remember his last name. I just Googled English professors with the name Jeremy until I saw his picture and email. I told him I’d been writing. And that I was thankful for him opening my mind.
He wrote back and told me to send him what I write. I haven’t the heart or the courage. I still have trouble at times thinking of myself as creative.
Maybe I was creative. Who knows? Maybe it just didn’t have a place in my big 18-year old scheme for winning at life. Maybe it was one of those things you just don’t win at, so I didn’t value it enough. Maybe if I had fostered it, I’d have become a better writer than I am. Or maybe I’d have spent money on an MFA and ended up like every other frustrated novelist I know in NYC who is saddled with debt and soaked in failure. You might not be able to win at creative writing, but you can certainly fail at it. The failure is internal, but also heaped on, bit by bit, every time you run into someone and they ask you how the novel is going. And when it will be done. And how much did it sell. And what the next one will be about. And have you read so and so whose book made it to some top list or was turned into a movie.
There are lots of late in life mistakes I make now that have lower stakes than if I’d made them when I was 22. Like having sex with the cute boys from high school at 40. I had the musical writer and the punk computer programmer and the jock cool kid and now the punk professional musician with a successful career (sort of–the sex, not the success). But now it’s just fun. It’s not what defines me. I’m not going to cry if it goes wrong. It’s just another adventure turned story.
Writing is a bit like that, too. I’m so fortunate that I have time to sit here in Tucson and think. I’ve got something going for me. The stuff I write is engaging enough that I’ve earned a hodge podge following and some respect. I see that my writing is different enough to connect with an audience in a new way.
I can go for broke, or switch gears. Either way, I’m not afraid. I had a career snatched out from under me. I saw how its success and failure defined me internally and from the outside. I know better now. Yes, I’m a creative. But I am also a person with great big thoughts, a lot of energy, a lot of humor and some wisdom cobbled together like pieces of gum stuck under a restaurant table day after day. I am the accumulation of sedimentary layers glued together through time and pressure. You may try and carve out my very soul with your judgment, but the only thing you will reveal is the majesty of the complexity and contrast inside.
Maybe I will send Jeremy something after all.