I took a single fiction workshop as an undergraduate, with the writer Sheri Reynolds. She was the first person I ever met who had published a book; her first novel, The Rapture of Canaan, came out during the semester I was taking her class. Until that point, the names on the books I read seemed exotic and inaccessible. Writers, I imagined, lived in London or Paris or New York City. They were all sixty-five. They looked like the black and white photographs on book jackets, even in real life.
But here was my teacher: an actual novelist, who wasn't much more than twenty-five years old, and who was, like me, from the American South. Christ Almighty, she wore jeans and carried a backpack. She was practically like me.
I wanted to impress her, this writer I knew, and agonized over the stories I wrote that semester. They were forgettable family melodramas—aphids and kudzu and family secrets, that's what my stories were made of—but I actually sat down and wrote them, a significant step for someone whose literary output to date was a folder full of scribbled poetry inspired by The Smiths lyrics.
On the last day of class, Sheri returned our writing portfolios with her comments in the margins. At the top of my latest story, she had written: I look forward to buying your books. Until I saw those words—your books—I hadn't admitted my fantasy: that I wanted to write a book too. Suddenly it seemed possible.
Six years later, I was a guest at a brunch hosted by John Casey, the National Book Award-winning writer and Professor of English Literature at the University of Virginia. I had been accepted to their MFA program in Creative Writing, and had been invited, along with a few other prospective students, to meet with Casey and ask any questions we might have.
I spent the first hour of the brunch too intimidated to speak, so I sat quietly at the table and marveled at the spread, which included unfamiliar items like shad roe, ginger preserves, and—somewhat bewilderingly—five or six little espresso pots. What a hassle, I thought, making all of those individual pots. Hadn't Casey ever heard of a regular old drip coffee maker?
Then I had a cup of that coffee. It tasted divine—like Italy, I decided (though I had never been). Having established that the espresso pots had an inspired purpose, I was able to focus on the matter at hand: asking an intelligent question. But the only question I really had—How will I learn how to write?—seemed too involved to answer over a plate of eggs.
In the end, I remember only one of the questions from that day, posed by an intense young woman from an elite school. She asked, "How do you help us get published?" Every head at the table snapped to attention, waiting for Casey's reply. He smiled and shrugged, and said, "Don't worry about getting published. Worry about getting good first."
The girl seemed dissatisfied by his answer—she went on to ask about how to get an agent—but I was secretly relieved. I was worried about getting published, especially since I didn't know how to write yet. I had decided, rather arbitrarily, that I should publish a novel by the age of thirty, but—being twenty-five years old already —I was afraid I wouldn't be good enough in time.
Casey's directive was unexpectedly reassuring. Yes, it was difficult to picture a future in which I hadn't published anything, but it was worse to picture a future in which I published something I couldn't be proud of. I thought of Casey's espresso pots. Quality takes care, and care takes time.
The teacher of my first fiction workshop at UVA was the inimitable Deborah Eisenberg. Being familiar with her stories, I knew that her writing was beautifully, achingly precise, and because I suspected (let's face it, I knew) that my writing wasn't, I was nervous about our first personal conference.
We met in her office, which was sunlit and warm. She asked me where I lived and we discovered that we were neighbors and had a friend in common. We chatted for a few minutes, about the friend and about our neighborhood. Deborah was dressed entirely in black and on the floor beside her was her large, worn, black leather briefcase that resembled an old-fashioned medical bag. The effect was of an exceedingly chic doctor making a friendly literary house call.
Finally, she pulled my story out of her briefcase. She apologized for "a little schmutz" she had gotten on the first page, a barely perceptible smudge of coffee. I found myself wishing the smudge were larger, large enough to obliterate the story and require us to reschedule.
Alas, she began to read my story aloud. She read just the first sentence and then she paused and asked me a question. I don't remember what it was, because my internal mortification was too great. It was dawning on me that we would be reading and discussing each individual sentence of my story. Each. Individual. Sentence.
Two hours later, the conference was over, and I had begun to realize what should have been obvious from the beginning: every sentence matters. Every sentence must add to the whole in some way, and if it does not, it diminishes it. I looked at Deborah's retreating figure, doctor's bag in hand, and realized I had been diagnosed. My treasured writing tricks, "poetic" ambiguity and "emotional" sentence fragments, would have to be chucked.
I had never asked Casey my question—How will I learn how to write?—but I was getting my answer. I would have to think more clearly and be more precise. I would have to work harder. Oh.