I’m a cofounder of The Scintilla Project, along with my friends Onyi and Dominique, two whip-smart and artfully snarky women with beautiful hair. This is my response to one of the Day 7 prompts, Write about someone who was a mentor for you. We believe that your stories make you who you are and we’re asking you to share yours. Interested? Sign up at scintillaproject.com and follow us at @ScintillaHQ.
I had plenty of teachers and adults I looked up to, and lots that were encouraging to me, but I can think of few who truly attempted to mentor me or push me farther than I was already going. The one I’m writing about today is the one I feel made the most difference.
Behind his back, I called him Nich (rhymes with hitch and stitch but never never bitch). Not as an insult; I admired him with every creative urge I had. I wish you could have met him, because that would have meant that we were together back in the 90s on the third floor, trading drafts with each other and trying to predict what he would say when he read them. He said very little, for a professor, someone whose job it was to hold our attention and make us see what we’d been missing. He was not one of those who loved to hear himself speak so much as he loved the writing he assigned, works by the best novelists and story writers in the business. I learned to read the way he wanted me to, which was more carefully and critically than I’d ever been asked to read before. I took every course the man taught, worked my schedule around his, added an extra sixty-mile roundtrip to my week just to take his fiction workshop. I would not have read the Beats or post-Beats so rigorously, seeking order and meaning out of chaos, without him. I would never have read “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” three times or Revenge of the Lawn at all.
Nich was short, for a guy, but he usually wore shitkickers. There was something about his stature and the heels of those shoes that was less Cowboy Gone Yankee and more Prince, somehow, genteel and precise and a little highfalutin. Unlike so many of our instructors, he learned our names, all of them, and always called us Mr. and Miss, possibly in an effort to civilize us. And right when he’d civilized us, just enough, he showed us how to break rules, swiftly and cleanly as breaking a chicken’s neck.
I worked harder for him than I had for any other teacher, ever, possibly because he was so stinting with his praise. A tiny penciled “Good.” in the margin of a paper would carry me for weeks; I still have some of these “Good.”s saved fifteen years later. A question mark, also tiny, also penciled, could wreck me. What had I been thinking? Had I rushed? Had I thought that was right? What would Raymond Carver do?
The answer, almost always, was to throw away the sentence.
Fiction Workshop was the best, most concentrated dose of Nich, and worth every inconvenience. I took it three times: 264, 364, 464. I would have found a way to do it a fourth time if they would have let me. We read weekly, wrote weekly. Stray marks in the margins were there to be agonized over, but the weekly workshop packet was the sweet prize of the course. Every week Nich chose a few of our assignments to put into a photocopied packet for discussion. When he chose mine I felt unstoppable and talented and terrified, and I learned to sit quietly without defending my words even when people didn’t get what I had clearly put down on paper. CLEARLY, Y’ALL. I visited him for office hours after one workshop that didn’t go well, when a story I thought had real potential had been met with indifference by most and hostility by others. “You’re going to have to get used to people discussing your work. It’s going to happen every time you put it out there, and you’re going to be read by a lot of people. That’s a lot of people, some of whom aren’t going to see what I see.” What a difference it was to hear this specific view of my capabilities, instead of the wembley sorts of encouragement I’d gotten from others. And with built-in failure ramifications, the kind you can learn to survive! You’re smart; you can do anything you want in life is not the comfort some people think it is.
At the end of senior year, he recommended me for a prize and assigned me a long final project. He mailed it back to me before I left for Georgia, with a long typewritten letter filled with encouragement and incisive analysis—brusque with my shortcomings and yet approving of my strengths. He recommended a few little magazines that he thought would be a good fit for my work, and wished me, as you do, all the best.
Writing about him today was difficult, and not just because there was so much to him that I could never do him any justice. Mostly, it’s because I feel like I let him down in some way by not having a short story collection and a couple of novels by now, that the curt but bolstering check-ins during his office hours did not result in the kind of work that would have made him proud of me. I have no string of publications, no fellowship, no grants, no MFA. I am not read by a lot of people (although you have Nich’s permission to not enjoy what you read here, and I’m to shut up and take it). At the same time, I wouldn’t say I’ve given up on this particular plan, either. Sometimes when I reread my work, I hear it in his voice, whiskey-dark and southern accented, and sometimes I can picture the spot in the margin where that tiny penciled “Good.” would go.