Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Jumping into the Deep End

By the time I was a senior in high school I had already earned all the needed credits except English (and gym, which in those days was required for four years, not the single semester my daughter will have to endure). Freed of most obligations, I decided to take two classes at a nearby public university.

Since I was a self-described writer, one of the classes I chose was Introduction to Creative Writing. I was prolific, with two novels written in longhand, and had earned raves from my high school English teacher in her creative writing class. Why not?

But -- as my profile says -- I grew up in a rural area outside a small town. My writing was all about things I hadn't learned from experience, like cities, crime, and gangs. I was fascinated by a world I had only read about, not believing the things I actually knew could be potential story material. You won't be surprised to hear that my work was all badly written drivel (which is obvious to any adult who looks at it).

Richard Price, circa 1983In hindsight, I wasn't much of a candidate for my new class and its teacher, Richard Price. I had never heard of Price, who was about 28 at the time and had already published two novels (The Wanderers and Blood Brothers). This is a guy whose work is known for its gritty urban realism and naturalistic dialog. Who went on to be nominated for Oscars (The Color of Money) and Emmys (The Wire), and to have his books acclaimed in the New York Times Book Review.

It's funny to think what Price's attitude might have been about this class. I imagine that in a lot of ways, it was mostly a job he had to do to support his real work -- which was taking off, but may not have been supporting him yet. He was finishing his third book, Ladies' Man (it came out the next year). And the movie version of The Wanderers was probably well into development at the time. During the class, I imagined he loved the other students, who were all writing about life in New York City, but it's possible he thought their work was just as boring and bad as mine. Who knows.

I read his two novels and was staggered by what they implied about the level of his expectations: Not only are they urban and compellingly written, they're also extremely male. My stories, based on knowledge drawn from what I'd read rather than what I knew, often focused on male protagonists and centered on masculine themes as well -- but I could see the hollowness at the heart of my characters.

I dropped the course after a month or so, overwhelmed by my inadequacy and lack of knowledge of the world. It put a damper on my college aspirations as well: At the beginning of my senior year, given my test scores and grades, I had been thinking of applying to Bryn Mawr or Wellesley, but I retreated from that and went with safer schools, close to home.

In fairness to my 17-year-old self, I would say that the course wasn't really structured like an introductory class. It actually wasn't structured much at all -- we were just supposed to write some pages and turn them in, sometimes reading aloud to the rest of the class. This was a great opportunity for people who were already "real" writers to shine, but not so good for those who needed to be nurtured. My later experience with another teacher in the same course was entirely different, and much more successful. Price's class was more similar to the intermediate or even the advanced class that I took later as I completed the creative writing major.

I don't have an ending for this recollection, except to say that, since then, I've never been a big fan of the sink-or-swim approach to education. I think it's important for young people to meet a challenge when they're developmentally ready for it and have half a chance to succeed, because it can be damaging to be totally blown out of the water. How that meshes with the idea that there should be consequences for decisions we make as young people -- the so-called right to fail -- I don't know.

But I still enjoy Richard Price's books and screenplays. As Walter Kirn said in his review of Price's latest book, Lush Life, Price is "a consummate stalker-realist," part Raymond Chandler, part Saul Bellow.

Who wouldn't want to read that?


Jill said...

I think that if you're going to do "sink or swim" you at least need to have a life vest. Most of my training was sink or swim (sometimes with a life vest, sometimes not) and although it was tough when I did it, it feels like I learned more that way and have more confidence in what I learned. It also feels teaching a new generation that they have so much fear of even approaching the water, afraid of looking foolish if they fail, that they miss a lot of valuable learning experiences.

elena said...

Fascinating: there's a lot to think about here, including the gendered dimensions of the experience. Teaching writing is not an easy task, yet writing often "happens" around those charismatic figures who are "real" (published) writers. Sometimes the "bad" writing, the drivel, is an indication of something else that marks a passion...Anyway, its kind of cool that you met this particular writer, though the experience was not the best. There's a story here about the big city/small town and the tensions and projections between them. I do wonder if your young writing was really as bad as all that and suspect that is wasn't. We are always really hard on our early selves, judging by a "deep end" standard. (I'll stop now, before I use too many more apostrophes!) Thanks for the post.

Patricia Cumbie said...

Oh Pat, I have so much to say about this post! My college writing experience was similar, even though I came from that gritty urban world, I was sooo unprepared to "compete" with students who were so much more sophisticated culturally and intellectually. I had no idea how to relate to my fellow students or the teachers. It shut me down for alot of years too. So I agree with you, part of teaching is encouragment as much as it is about technique and skill, no matter what level you are at.