Tuesday, March 18, 2008

An Unlikely Friend in Stephen King

Tristan and Kara tagged me weeks ago to list seven interesting facts about myself. Instead of listing seven small facts, I've decided to recount seven stories from my past. This is story number one.

I've always wanted to be a writer. I am embarrassed to admit this because at some point in life, doesn't everyone? Writing is a cliché, one of those idealized career choices children make when they are six. Marine Biologist, Fireman, Writer. As an adult, I can't help but admire the few who actually hold these dream occupations. They managed to keep a tenacious grip on the reverie of youth. I let my grip slacken, then fall, when I was eighteen years old.

I spent my childhood writing regularly and reading constantly. While other children played outside, I pounded out short stories on mom's powder blue Correct-O-Riter V. My affinity with words had no boundaries, but I worried about money. I knew my parents valued financial security, and very few people pull six figures by telling stories. In college I scrambled to find something that paid me to read and write, and settled on becoming a university professor. I decided to major in Latin American Literature in large part due to my love of magic realism.

Ol' Blue

I was eighteen and in my sophomore year when I decided to take an advanced Spanish lit class at one of the graduate schools. The class was entirely in Spanish which, as a native Spanish speaker, was not a problem for me. I blocked out the name of the professor long ago, but I will never forget her appearance or how she ultimately changed the course of my career.

She was a woman full of false bravado, clinging to her youth with the help of whorish outfits. One day she arrived in a micro mini and fishnet stockings paired with a black leather jacket and lace bra. I had never met anyone like her and, in retrospect, my lousy poker face must have made that clear. Likewise, her disdain for me-- a reserved girl from a strict Catholic upbringing-- was immediate and palpable. I was the Bourgeoisie; she was Che. She would later cry that I looked at her each day with contempt. It was actually embarrassment, but I never bothered to correct her.

The incessant posturing in that class intimidated me and, confident I wasn't good enough, I worked twice as hard as everyone else. I slaved over the final paper of the term. I took it home to my mom to polish up the vocabulary and grammar. She didn't love it. In fact, she told me to expect a "C." I turned it in, confident in my mediocrity.

The following week I took my usual seat at the front of the class. The tramp professor blasted through the door and, when everyone was seated, walk up to me and asked me for the name of my academic adviser and every instructor I had ever studied under in the Spanish department. I could hear everyone behind me shifting in their seats, no doubt wondering just like me why she would need that information. She then asked to schedule an appointment with me to discuss my paper. Crap! Was my paper so bad that she needed to talk to me about it?! Couldn't the final exam help? I agreed with her on a date and time and sat through the rest of the class, sick to my stomach.

At the end of class I walked up to her and asked her the purpose of the meeting and why she needed the names of my instructors. She refused to tell me until our appointment. I persisted, albeit respectfully. The students could sense an argument in the air and moved around the room like sloths hoping to catch an expletive or two. They didn't leave disappointed. She stood up so that she had everyone's attention and said, "I need your information because you did not write that paper. You are a cheater and I want to contact everyone you have studied because I am sure you cheated with them, too. My goal is to have you expelled."

Twelves bodies in one room and it was dead silent.

A few days later, we met. She believed the paper was PhD material and beyond my capabilities. "I know there are some shy and quiet people that can be intelligent, and actually quite gifted. You aren't that person. I am, and I can't believe that someone like you can be as intelligent as me."

You can imagine how the rest of the conversation went. No amount of convincing (or copious tears on my part) could convince her I wrote that paper. She contacted all my other professors, and I spent the rest of the week in meetings. Fortunately, my other classes had in-class essay exams. She cautioned the professors that I was devious and probably figured out how to cheat. The school denied her petition to have me expelled, and with the benefit of hindsight I can see she lacked as much respect among her peers as she did with her students. No one believed I cheated, but they gave me an "F" to make her happy. The faculty also allowed her to write a manifesto about my unethical behavior to include in my permanent school record. She wanted to prevent any future graduate schools from making the mistake of accepting me into their program. I don't know what happened to that letter, but it never did make it to my file.

The experience crushed me. I switched majors and started taking science classes. My professors told me I was making a terrible mistake but I refused to listen. I stopped speaking Spanish and stopped writing. She may not have won the petition to have me expelled, but she achieved something far more permanent. I believed her when she said I wasn't smart enough and that I was incapable of writing well. I never again wrote an essay, and two years later I graduated with a very safe degree in psychology. Four years after that I had a Masters degree in Public Health. Five years after that I had a law degree. All of it very safe, very respectable, and fundamentally not me.

Of course, I do some creative writing with my announcement verses. But for the most part, writing is a passion I had abandoned--until this weekend. On a whim I bought Stephen King's book On Writing. It's an old book, and many of you may have read it already. If you haven't, and enjoy writing at all (Laurel, I'm talking to you), read this book.

You know what's funny? I don't even like Stephen King! I have never even read a Stephen King novel. But, this weekend, I found in Stephen King an unlikely friend. Here is a guy who is routinely persecuted by negative reviews--and yet he is one of the most prolific writers of his generation. The man writes what some refer to as drivel, and yet he has legions of fans and has published over 150 works (short stories and novels). Why the hell do I hang on to what some maladjusted little harpy said 15 years ago? Stephen King takes his criticisms to the bank, and often. I learned something from Stephen this weekend, even if it's something I've known all along. Don't listen to the haters, because they most likely hate in you what they wish they had in themselves.

It's time for me to start writing again. Thanks, Steve. I owe you one.