Saturday, November 03, 2007

Thank you, creepy professor

So where was I? (Read the previous post first if you haven't already. I'm writing about how I became a writer. I'll wait here.)

Right, so I was now an advertising major, and as such, had to take writing courses. That was cool by me because I had always enjoyed writing and had taken elective writing courses as an art major. I had even tried to take an advanced workshop in poetry, but I was turned down. What a disappointment that was! I remember waiting outside the class when the list was posted, and searching and searching for my name. I remember, too, the poem I used as an "audition," and how stupid I felt afterwards. Dumb poem! Why did I write you? Why did I think you were any good?

I had a slightly weird writing history in school. Very early on-- I'm talking first grade, I think-- my teacher wrote on my report card that she expected to see my name on the New York Times Bestseller List. My mom, who was an English teacher and thrilled! thrilled! thrilled! by this notation, saved that report card and mentioned it roughly every three days for the remainder of my life to the present day.

I loved books. Loved reading under the covers after I was supposed to be in bed. Joined all the summer library reading clubs. Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Shel Silverstein... I remember writing to Ann Landers once, too, asking for her advice about where I could be hired as a writer. I was maybe 8 or 9 and wanted to know if she knew of any newspapers where they would "let kids in."

But along the way, and I can't point to when or why, exactly, I dropped the idea of becoming a writer. Although I did well in English classes, only one or two of my teachers really seemed to see anything special in me. I didn't do wonderfully on my AP test. I wrote a lot of bad poetry and short stories, but I stopped reading for pleasure when the required reading selections in junior high and high school sucked the joy right out of it for me. I'm really not fond of "the classics," and overanalyzing literatures kills any of the magic it might contain, in my mind.

More than anything, my passion was always the theatre. I was a good stage actress, and that's really what I always hoped to do. Everything else I studied and worked on sheerly as "fall-back" options, because I knew how unsteady acting was as a career.

I had begun college as an art major only because my father wouldn't let me major in theatre. He thought it would be a bad life for me, and that you didn't need college to become an actress anyway. I'm really not sure why he thought art would be more stable, but he didn't complain about it. He was happy when I switched to advertising, though.

So. Advertising. Writing courses. Right. It was my introduction to writing for mass communication class, or some title like that, and the professor taught me more in the very first class than I had ever learned in any other class. Primarily, he taught me to analyze every word I wrote to make sure each word was necessary. He asked us to write about ourselves during the first 15 minutes or so of that first class, then said, "Now take out every unnecessary adverb, adjective and every word that isn't essential to the meaning of your essay." It was so enlightening to me to see all the cross-outs. And, I'll be darned if he wasn't right-- getting rid of all those pretty adjectives and adverbs made it a much stronger piece. He taught us about strong nouns and verbs, and about the discipline of rewriting.

Our first real assignment, though, was to write about a turning point in our lives. I agonized over my essay all week, mostly writing fairly trivial things until I gave in and wrote the thing I knew I had to write about. On the last day before class, in an all-night sort of frenzy, I wrote about being raped. I was scared to death to turn it in, and scared into the afterlife when he handed back all the papers but mine and instead told me to see him after class.

What he wanted to do, though, was to literally shake me by the lapels and tell me I was going to be a writer. I told him that I wasn't, but he insisted. It was a nice feeling, even though I was sure he was wrong.

I've told that part before in interviews. It's the next part I don't think I've ever mentioned.

He followed me home.

Not that day. It was a growing crush he developed. First, he paired himself with me during a profile-writing exercise. After I finished "interviewing" him, he told me I had left off a question. "What?" I asked. "You didn't ask if I'm married." "Oh. Are you?" "No," he said with a smile.


We met on the subway by chance one day, and he sat next to me and told me he was a hobbyist photographer and would love to take my picture one day because I had such an interesting face. It made me squirm a little. But it was the following-home episode that really almost had me calling campus security.

He often talked with me after class, and we sometimes walked out together. Usually, he wanted to recommend that I read certain books, or he wanted to comment more on a piece I had written. This day, he had brought Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground and he wanted to read it to me. Seriously. He began reading... and when I told him I had to go home to change for work, he simply got on the subway with me and kept right on going. When I said, "This is my stop," he got up and walked with me as if I had invited him to.

It was all very weird because I had no idea where to draw the line. He hadn't ever tried anything physical on me, nor said anything sexual, but I was pretty sure professors weren't supposed to follow their students home. When we got there, the power in my house was out, and only one of my roommates (out of TWELVE) was there. The professor followed me to my bedroom, and that's where I finally told him he'd have to leave because I had to change and go to work.

He never tried that again, and I never saw him again after that year was over, but as I reflected on it later, there was a giant compliment in all of it: I had been hit on and stalked before, by men of varying ages and marital statuses, because of my looks. I had never been hit on because of my brain.

And that's really what this was. There were plenty of attractive women in that class, I'm sure several more attractive than I was. But it was my writing that did it for him. He was completely infatuated with my way with words.

I had always wanted to be great at something.

Maybe I could be a great writer.

I took more writing courses, and found out that I got similar reactions from two more professors. Not the hitting on me or following me home stuff, but the pulling me aside after class and telling me I was meant to write kind of stuff. One wrote, "You humbled me" on my first assignment, which was my favorite compliment. I knew he had expected me to be... not very good. I came in with daisies in my hair and an eyebrow ring, and I understood he thought I was an airhead. Another taught my favorite workshop, and encouraged me to intern with the university's literary magazine (I did). He e-mailed me a couple of years back and let me know he wasn't at all surprised that I became a successful writer.

So, really, I was the only one who was surprised I became a successful writer. I thought it would be a hobby, but it was the panic disorder that fixed my wagon. I was acting in a children's theatre at the time, then became housebound and had to find something to do from home. I wondered if I could really earn any money as a writer. I set out to find out. Obsessively.

I had nothing and no one in my life at the time outside my immediate family. I couldn't go out-- the panic attacks would just take over. So for years, I had nothing else but this desperate hope to make it as a writer, to prove that I still had some kind of worth.

I got a couple of magazine assignments quickly, but it was beginner's luck. It took at least two or three years until I had steady magazine work, and another couple of years to make my mark in book publishing. My "big break" actually came in the form of several smaller breaks that I can trace all the way back to my earliest work-- some of which I did for little e-zines for minimal payment. I wrote whatever anyone wanted me to write in those first few years, regardless of what I got paid, and I don't regret it for a second.

I hinted a couple of posts back about the things I learned from Celine Dion, and the biggest lesson for me was this: I spent an awful lot of time feeling cheated that I never got to take my big shot at acting. I had planned on moving to LA with a friend and seeking out my fame and fortune, but that was when the agoraphobia hit. Celine and I talked through the middle of the night again and again about fame, about her life, about the paths we choose and the dreams we create and how the things we think we want as children aren't always the things we want as adults. She wistfully talked about how she wanted to be "owned" by her son, but often felt "owned" by the public.

I could never have handled fame. It would have been entirely wrong for me. And as I sat there on the floor with this marvelous woman, I realized that I was happy exactly where I was. I didn't feel restless anymore. I was doing what I was always meant to do, and I was enjoying it. Telling other people's stories was becoming a real blessing in my life-- it meant that I got to meet some really interesting people and learn from them, and I got to feel good about helping them. I'm a good listener, and good at writing in others' voices.

So it's a bit like that song-- what is it? About going around the world before realizing that the person you love lives right next door? Writing was my "guy next door."

And Sarina owns me.

And I'm glad.