Today's topic is a tangent spinning off a post over at One Good Thing which I read via Pilgrim/Heretic, the blog that embraces riffraff.
Teachers Who Suck the Creativity out of Students
In college I had this creative writing teacher who didn't like the stories I wrote. He thought my techniques were fine, but he didn't like my subject matter. I wrote a short story in which the main character was a pregnant woman who was thinking about getting an abortion. This was the early 1980s and abortion was still a hot topic in the media, in the circle of feminists and environmentalists who were my friends, and in the circle of conservative Roman Catholics who were my home community. I didn't know what I thought about the topic myself - I was only eighteen years old and still felt pulled in all kinds of ways by the people around me. So writing a short story from the perspective of a pregnant woman was one way for me to try to work my own way through my conflicting thoughts and emotions.
The character in the story didn't come to any conclusions. That's one of my favorite things about writing fiction, incidentally. You can just end the story and not come to any conclusions.
My teacher hated the story. He said that writing about abortion was "opening a can of worms." (This was right after he told us not to use cliches.) He said that no one would want to read about a pregnant woman because pregnancy was not a universal experience. Universal, in this case, meant white middle-class male.
He said that I couldn't possibly write a story from the perspective of a pregnant woman because I had never been pregnant. He on the other hand seemed to be an absolute authority on pregnancy because his wife had one time had a baby, and he went through the story circling paragraphs in which I had described the way the woman's body felt, telling me that the details were wrong.
Years later, when I was pregnant with my first child, I got out the old story and realized that my descriptions were, in fact, right on target. I suspect that this accuracy came about because I was socialized as a woman: even before college, I had attended many women-only gatherings such as baby showers and had heard women talking about how their bodies felt. I had been exposed to a wealth of information about pregnancy. It's likely that I knew far more than my arrogant male professor.
Of course, sitting in the classroom, listening while the professor ripped my story apart, there was nothing I could do. That was the rule. The professor handed out copies of the story, which were supposed to be anonymous, and everyone was encouraged to jump in with criticism. The writer was supposed to remain silent. The students in the classroom for the most part just followed along with whatever harsh criticism the professor was dealing out. I'm not sure what these workshops were supposed to accomplish, but what they did for me was to kill any desire to write.
The only piece of encouragement that I got was from another student in the class. He was two years older than me, a senior, and an incredible artist as well as writer. What I admired most about him is that he just wrote whatever he wanted and ignored the teacher altogether. He never said anything aloud in class. Anyhow, one day in class, while the teacher was again ripping apart one of my stories, this time about a pregnant woman who lives in a futuristic culture in which she is being forced to have an abortion because of the government's population control mandate, I notice him quietly circling phrases and starring paragraphs. After class, he handed me his copy of my story. "I know it's supposed to be anonymous," he said, "but I knew it was yours. I went through and circled all the stuff that told me it was yours. You have a very recognizable writing style. I think you are the best writer in the class."
Looking back, I am grateful for that older student and his intuitive way of encouraging me. And I wonder how much of the writing I've done over the last ten years was fueled by a stubborn desire to prove that teacher wrong. That teacher, by the way, never did get anything of his own published. In the meantime, I've published poetry about pregnancy, childbirth, sex, breastfeeding - well, just about any bodily experience you could have. All of it written from the perspective of a woman. Because I am a woman. And I think being a writer means I should not be silent.