The honest stain of truth

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?

61 thoughts on “The honest stain of truth

  1. I’m lost in the prose and story of this post…beautifully compelling. And yes, I did have the misfortune (or should I say fortune?) of running into such a situation. In art college one of my professors looked at my fifty thumbnails produced in her stipulated 10 minutes and simply said, “You aren’t very creative, are you.” I crawled back to my hole determined to prove her wrong. She loved my final piece so much that she left it–the work of a 5th quarter student–up to show the 8th quarter students the level of work she wanted. Though painful it pushed me beyond what I thought I could do.

    • I’m still not sure if it was fortune or misfortune myself, but at least it expanded my perspective. And all kinds of art, after all, involve unique perspectives. Pain can push us, that’s for sure! Love your creative-ness, Dineen!

  2. WOW, Amy. Your post is amazing. Sometimes teachers don’t come gift wrapped in the packages or approaches we’d like. However, how we learn to overcome those situations can make us stronger. It sounds like this professor had a very sharpening effect on you and your writing. Clearly, you are stronger for pushing through.

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  4. This was a painful post to read. I taught social work for six years full-time, and as an adjunct for several years after that and can’t think of a single time when it would have been appropriate to publicly berate and humiliate a student. I have had to say some hard things to students, but always did it privately and with the goal of helping them to grow and improve.

    I think this is also an example of how God can make good things come from bad situations. I’m glad that you didn’t stop writing and allowed God to touch you and heal you through this, but I will never approve of this professor’s methods. To me this was a horrible abuse of his position and power.

    Personal growth is often painful, and we sometimes have a part to play in helping others grow. I just think about the scriptures that talk about correcting and instructing others IN LOVE. Sometimes love must be tough, but…

    • Yeah, Sherri, it was pretty awful to go through, and even made my stomach churn to write about again over a decade later. But like you say, God uses everything for His purposes. I’m so grateful there are professors like you out there who are true and good to their students to balance these Jabba-the-Hut’s out! 🙂

  5. For every student who was helped by professor’s “teaching methods,” I wonder how many more were irreparably scarred, completely giving up on writing.

    I’ve seen educational tyrants like him over the years in many subjects and at different levels of education. From my observations, the fallout was always been much more pervasive than those rare successes.

    • Peter–I know. I’m sure many didn’t survive, and that is so tragic and unnecessary. And at the time, my confidence did plummet. Thankfully I grew from it too.

  6. I was just thinking about this yesterday. I had a prof. set up a meeting the day before graduation. She challenged me to polish my final paper even more. I remember thinking, “I graduate tomorrow. What could she be thinking? It’s done, isn’t it?” It wasn’t done and she didn’t want me to settle.

    I put in the time and polished it.

    I learned a huge lesson from that prof. and am deeply grateful. She didn’t want my final to be a pencil scratch, but an honest stain.

    Great post, Amy!
    ~ Wendy

  7. Amy – thank you so much for saying this. Writing saved my life or even gave me one. Before I started writing I was keeping old, dark secrets of sexual abuse to myself and it was shrinking my life right before a crowd full of eyes. I poured all of that into my first novel, Wired (a thriller of all things) and the main characters and finally started telling the truth – sort of. I got hundreds of emails from readers who then shared a secret with me – it was like I opened up a magic gate for others and I was humbled and awed by it. But when reporters inevitably asked me if any of this was from my life I lied and said no, for years I said no and kept writing, telling the truth through plot lines and characters and working it all out in my own strange, backwards way. Eventually, the faith and strength of readers gave me the strength to finally start telling my own truth. My life began to open up from there. Sometimes, readers affect the writers more than they know too. Since then, I’ve had the blessing of writing a national column and sometimes I’m on the losing side of the angry email pile because of the opinions I gave but buried in the middle of them is an email from someone thanking me for telling their truth and giving them a voice and I feel that gift finally returned again to a reader somewhere out there. Thank you for the reminder of how powerful writing can be for all the right reasons.

    • Martha, I think, like I’ve told Beth Vogt about her and I as well, we quite possibly were separated at birth, lol! 🙂 I’m so, so sorry you had to endure and survive abuse, too. But oh, the light, healing and singing He can create out of our ashes. If it had not been for the darkness, I would not know–nor be able to pass along–such light. Thank YOU for your courage in speaking truth, too!

      • One of the abusers years later emailed me to ask how I was doing (he had seen the book and knew it was selling well) and ended the post with a smiley face icon. That tipped me over the edge and before I could take it back I wrote about all of it for the Washington Post. It set me free. Thank you for everything too. Love all of my Water Cooler brothers and sisters.

  8. Wow, Amy, there is so much raw truth and honesty here. And what a gift you give your readers in letting them know that they are not alone.

    I once had an acquaintance tell me my writing was milk-toast. It was good, he said, but on the surface. I hated that comment. But it did change the way I write.

    • Michelle–can you use Bailey’s Irish Creme to make milk toast? ‘Cause then it might be tasty! 🙂 And yeah, I’m learning, more and more, that one of the greatest gifts you can give someone is letting them know they’re not alone. May you and I and all writers be blessed to meet that challenge.

  9. This really got to me! I want to run out and buy everything you’ve ever written! We all have something to dig into and the deeper we go can also be a healing experience as well as a writing marvel. Great post!

  10. Great post! I so agree. If I can set even one person free through my blog and other writing ventures, that would be AMAZING. The truth is what sets us free. I’m no longer timid about bleeding onto paper. Ironically, it’s what keeps me alive.

    • It is life and breath, isn’t it? Writing mercies to you, dear one, and keep up the bleeding. The cool thing about blood (I learned in nursing school) is that it replenishes itself. Praying that for you today!

    • Thank you, Erica! And yeah–I could never do any of life’s journies alone. Grateful for you and all the writers God’s placed across my path. May we continue to bless each other!

  11. I also had a writing teacher like that, and like you it made me strive to write better – to prove him wrong. It’s very hard to write with such honesty – but experience has taught me to write from other side of such experiences. Without the wisdom of having come through it, survived, it’s hard to do anything but wallow in the pain rather than help others reach into their own pain and walk the hot coals we haven’t yet tread ourselves.
    Lisa

    • Lisa–maybe we went to the same college. Or maybe our professors went through the same training. Regardless, God is good to allow us to grow through it all. Writing mercies to you!

  12. I love this post, Amy. I think so many of us have had teachers who hurt us–sometimes in good, growing ways, sometimes in bad ways–sometimes both, as you write here. But caring teachers can stimulate growth that may hurt…you can push a student hard but with tough love, not abuse.

    • Rosslyn, thank you. I think, in hindsight, he did cross the line to a form of abuse. And abuse breaks. Tough teachers build. Thankfully, God meets the broken and grows us all. Blessings!

  13. Amy, what a great post. Your descriptions of that season in your life make my heart ache for you. I admire the way you didn’t give up or give in to his “ways of teaching.” You learned in spite of him and obviously have grown as a writer. Good for you. May I learn to write as deeply as you do. Thanks for sharing.

  14. I have a crit partner who won’t let me just skim the surface of my character’s turmoil or “deep thoughts”…she always gets me to dig deeper. And with that, comes a character that doesn’t just get sympathy from a reader, but empathy and understanding.
    Something I have come across in my short time among Christian writers, is the resistance for some to include unlikely characters in Christian books… I have an atheist who adds to the protagonist’s arc…I have a native woman who is the heroine of one of my novels. It’s nice to read about typical Christians in extraordinary situations, but I think it’s “real” to have them anchored in a world where they are influenced by all sorts. It also challenges us to love greatly. Thanks for the post.

    • Wow, Angie, what a great critique partner! And so cool and courageous that you use those amazing folks to breathe life into your writing. Loving greatly . . . that is the challenge, indeed!

  15. Thank you so much for this post Amy. My writing has been in a dormant stage for years. I can think of a number of reasons holding me back. I had become afraid, afraid that I was not good enough to write a word, afraid someone would make fun, afraid of the headache my name has caused, afraid peroid. I was sinking in quicksand, unable to move, unable to create a word. But a friend encouraged me to write anything. She suggested this post. I am beginning to get my courage back to let the pen flow, to trust my imagination to fill a page with concrete nouns and action verbs.

    • Lord, please bless this person’s writing. Breath life into the dormant, shadow-y places and replace this person’s fear with peace and a renewed determination to write bravely for You. Amen. Writing mercies, friend!

  16. This is the kind of writing I want to do, and the kind I’m working at now. Some of the pain I write from is in the past, some of it is ongoing, and I feel like I’m working through things at the same time my characters are. I’m not yet published, but I hope someday I will be, and that the stories I write will help other people who have been scarred by emotional abuse and feelings like they can never be good enough, for other people or for God.

    Thanks so much for your post today. It verified that I’m on the right track!
    Blessings,
    Stacy Aannestad
    (Caddie Murray is the main character in my fictional blog)

  17. Oh yes, yes! I’ve posted about this many times, how writing my book proved cathartic & necessary for my recovery & transformation. The nightmares are finally gone, after decades of torture. Although my crit partner helped pull more out of me, it was something else, outside of me, a voice that coaxed on and helped me tell my story in an organized, polished format. I’ll never understand how it all happened, but I’m grateful just the same. Now I know how to reach the darkest places inside me & if reaching those places brings writing to life, then my writing will live forever!

  18. Wonderful insight into writing. I shudder as I look back at the first things I wrote. So sweet and sappy, but totally uninspiring. I’m glad I’m not the only one that feels depressed when I write through one of those hard places. Thank you!

    • I think all of us shudder at things we’ve written. I can’t even read one of my weekly newspaper columns after it prints, seriously! And yeah, after writing one really difficult scene I took not one, but two naps that day. Wiped. Me. Out. Writing mercies to you!

  19. I had a professor like that as well. I hated the fact that nothing I wrote ever pleased him. That my fine gilded words were discarded like potty training papers. I wanted to be preened and loved for the way that I chose to make my words sing prettily. What I didn’t know is that I was one dimensional, flat, and somewhere disarmingly close to Pollyanna.

    Dangerous writing reflects what is lurking in the blood of the writer. The things we wish we didn’t have in our system. But those emotions we’d rather discard are the ones that resonate in the lifeblood of our readers.

  20. Brava! Your thoughts have been with me for many years that too many of us who write fear to go down to the bone, to the marrow of it all. It’s where truth — and writing of any worth — truly live.

  21. Amy —
    Yes, we just may have been separated at birth.
    I am thankful our paths have crossed again (finally.)
    Truth isn’t pretty sometimes. There’s no way to drape it with tinsel and “pretty it up.”
    Finding the balance between ugly for ugly sake and honest reality that brings healing and hope … the offer of something more …to set even one person free.
    That’s the challenge.
    I think you are more than up to the challenge, my friend.

  22. I’ve learned that honesty, vulnerability, and transparency draw me in to the writing of others – and receive the most appreciative responses from my readers.

  23. Amy,

    I’m thanking God right now, because it may be possible that you just interpreted a dream I had years ago. I remember waking up and praying, “Okay, Lord, what the heck was that about?” I received no answer, and just filed it away in the back of my brain.

    In my dream, I was visiting a leper colony. A leper, alone, terrified, and in great pain, was reaching out for me to hug her. My heart ached for her, but I was terrified because I knew that by touching her, it would mean a certain, hideous, slow, lonely death for me. I had to trust God to protect me. I woke up just before my fingers made contact with her skin.

    I know I am afraid of what it will cost me to finish my novel. Terrified of going into the depths of pain and confusion resulting from sexual abuse and the long recovery afterward. Of the anger, the depression, the healing. But I know I must. I keep putting off the inevitable.

    I need to let go of the fear of going back to that place, if only to set just one person free.

    Thank you for this timely, much needed post.

  24. Since I was out of town for three weeks I had to get caught up on the WSWC yesterday. I was skimming through lots of emails and blog posts but yours stopped me in my tracks. Amy, I dreamed about this post. I agree, the way your professor did it was probably not the most compassionate way, but the outcome was important.

    I feel like framing your entire post and hanging it above my computer. You have a beautiful way with words. It brought tears to my eyes. I can’t wait to read more of your writing.

  25. Pingback: Part 2: Tripping over the truth, falling on safe ground « Natalie Sharpston

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