Professor looked like Jabba the Hut, jowls of flesh hanging over the collar of his shirt. He watched, smirking, as fellow co-eds and I jockeyed for seats around the long conference table, Professor’s preferred room arrangement for this, our first college creative writing class.
Until I met Professor, I could always count on my writing to please teachers and professors. But assignment after assignment came back with haphazard red-pen scratches. I imagined Professor held my paper for a brief moment before tossing it aside.
Professor enjoyed two things: making students cry and picking favorites. I landed in the first group, and was left out of the second like a scrawny girl in a middle school dodge ball gym class.
The class favorites wrote about sex, of course, and they wrote about it often. Though I lamented my mediocre scores, I refused to write about something so sacred just for him.
One fateful morning, my alarm clock malfunctioned and I was late for Professor’s class. When I arrived, he stopped class and laid into me with a barrage of insults. On and on he spat about how lazy, irresponsible and stupid I was, daring to enter his class late. Too hurt to hold back tears but too proud to leave, I stayed for the whole class.
My notebook was a soggy mess.
That day, I resolved to please Professor–if not shock the hell out of him–with my writing.
And I did.
I wrote a short story full of violence and deceit, sex and betrayal, blood and fine champagne.
The story disgusted me.
Professor loved it.
I hated Professor for a long time after that.
Years later, I realized my sordid short story paralleled scars of abuse from my childhood. The rage I felt toward Professor was a pivotal breakthrough from flowery, Pollyannic prose, and the beginning of my journey of writing hard, writing real and learning to write well.
I can’t say I agree with Professors tactics.
But I think I understand, now, what he was trying to do.
See, good writing involves daring to go to deep and frightening places. Like John Coffey–the man who breathed light and life into dead things in The Green Mile–hearts come alive when we breathe into still and long-forgotten places.
Words become life when writers allow the pen to pull them places no one else wants to go.
Like leper colonies, places in the soul exist where fear hangs like shadows, veiling what we don’t understand and shielding us from disease and pain. And yet, the only way to be real and alive is to allow the pen to touch diseased and painful places.
It is the unsought job of the writer to burst through the gates of leper colonies . . . to run to those who are bandaged and losing limbs . . . to embrace those who smell like rotting flesh . . . and to caress touch-starved hearts until they stop trembling and maybe, just maybe, believe in life again.
Good writers learn to distinguish the honest stain of truth from pencil scratches on paper.
Good writers learn the events in life which enslave us are ultimately the ones which set us free.
Good writers endure hours–even days–of depression that come when the pen finds fragile, tender places.
Good writers touch ugly, diseased places, in order to touch ugly, diseased places of others.
Good writers allow the pen to pull them.
To set even one person free.
What about you? How have you learned to write more deeply? Has a person, teacher, mentor or friend influenced the deep, true pull of your pen? Do you believe words have the power to set people free?