by Donna Andrews
Some of you may have heard me tell this story. But I think it deserves telling again.
Although I’d been writing since I learned how to hold a pencil, I took my first formal writing class in my sophomore year of college. I studied the catalogue and became determined to take a class with a professor who would be visiting that fall. Paul Theroux wasn’t as famous then as he later became—this was in the fall of 1974, and The Great Railway Bazaar, his breakout book, wouldn’t come out till 1975. But he’d already taken the soon-to-be-famous railway trip and either had written or was writing the book, and he’d published four or five novels and a book of short stories. He was a Real Author. I eagerly preregistered for his class.
I didn’t get it. I didn’t get any classes I preregistered for that semester, putting me in the stressful position of trotting around to professors’ offices before classes started, begging to be let into their classes.
I showed up at Theroux’s office to find him surrounded by boxes of books. I made my request to be added to his class. He countered with a question—who were my favorite authors. One of those I named was Saki—H.H. Munro, the noted British short story writer. This charmed him, apparently, as Saki was also one of his favorites. During his trip he’d taken a detour on a railway line in Burma solely because of its connection with Saki. He showed it to me on the globe. He asked if I’d ever read John Collier, for whose collected short stories he’d recently written a foreword. I dutifully jotted down Collier. I’m not sure I ever told him that I’d later discovered that I had read at least one story by him—“Evening Primrose,” still one of my all-time favorites. We talked about writers and books for what seemed like hours. Maybe it was.
Suddenly he realized that he was late for one of the many appointments required of a newly arrived visiting professor.
“You dropped by for a reason, didn’t you?” he asked. “What was it?”
“To get into your class.” I had the presence of mind to hold out the registration form and a pen.
“Fine; you’re in,” he said before dashing off to his appointment.
(I mention all this not because it’s important, except that by the time I showed up in his class, he had probably already figured out that I was not particularly shy or taciturn.)
I was walking on air. And one of the first things I did, before my feet touched the ground, was go down to the college bookstore to buy one of his books and see what I was in for. The book I bought was his recently released short story collection, Sinning with Annie. I read it cover to cover that night.
The first day of class came, and he asked if anyone had brought anything that they would be willing to read.
No one volunteered. He said he’d anticipated this, and had brought along a couple of stories from previous classes he’d taught, which he was going to distribute—with permission from the authors. He informed us that we were going to practice critiquing on these stories. He passed out mimeographed sheafs of papers and instructed us to read and prepare to discuss.
It wasn’t the first story he passed out. Either the second or the third. But suddenly as I realized that the story that I was reading was one I’d read before.
It was his story.
Specifically, it was the story “A Political Romance,” from Sinning with Annie, the book I’d read. And here it was, not neatly set in type and bound between the covers of a book, but badly typed on a manual typewriter and mimeographed, which was how professors passed out handouts in those days.
I watched aghast as my classmates went to town on it. They’d been relatively polite and hesitant at first, but now it was feeding time in the shark tank, and this story was another bit of chum thrown into the water. The story was nonsense. It was crap. It was sophomoric. The author should be embarrassed to have submitted it. It wasn’t worth wasting paper on.
I sat back and listened, surreptitiously watching Theroux’s face. And trying to remember if I’d carried on like this on the previous story, and wondering, if so, if it had also been one of his. And wondering if I was the only one who’d had the foresight to read our professor’s latest book, piled up in such glossy stacks in the bookstore.
After a while, when the rest of the class was subsiding into silence, having vented their spleen on the story, Theroux spoke up.
“Miss Andrews,” he said. “You’ve been uncharacteristically silent.”
Think fast, I told myself.
“Didn’t you have anything to say about the story?” he persisted.
“Well,” I said aloud. “As it happens, I know the author of the story, and I’ve read it before. I didn’t think it fair to give my considered opinions along with everybody else’s first impressions.”
“Very thoughtful of you,” he said. Was there a twinkle in his eye? “And what did you think of the story when you first read it?”
I can’t remember what I said. It was positive, because I’d liked the story. Had liked his whole book, in fact. He and I exchanged a few comments, being careful to preserve the fiction that this was a former student’s story.
Nevertheless, some of the brighter bulbs in the class began to catch on. You could tell when it happened, because they would turn pale or hunch their shoulders, and break into the conversation as soon as they could with remarks like “When I said it was total crap and no one should have wasted paper printing it, what I really meant was . . . “
When he saw a few of them had caught on, Theroux outed himself to the whole class as the story’s author and explained that he wanted to give us a very important lesson for what we’d be doing for the rest of the semester. That we should always remember that there was a living, breathing person behind each story we’d be reading.
I think we got it. I know I did. I can’t swear I’ve always remembered this, but I try to. Most of the time I succeed. And when I don’t, I pick myself up and try harder next time.
The kind of courtesy Theroux taught our class is harder these days. We’re less apt to be in the same room with the people we’re critiquing, reviewing, or just reading. Something about the Internet makes us want to think it’s okay to behave in a way that would get you kicked out of a well-run critique group. And something about the Internet is starting to affect our manners in the real world, too.
It’s possible to critique honestly without being cruel. To temper criticism with encouragement. To tell another writer what they need to know about their work without making them want to slit their wrists.
It starts with remembering the living, breathing human being behind the work.
And that is the first thing—and quite possibly the most important thing—I ever learned in writing class.