Learning to Write: The Death of my First Writing Prof


(A quick note: this is an extremely rough draft of the piece I plan to record and submit to Dimestories. I’m still not sure what I want to add/subtract, or if I want to redo the piece altogether.  I simply feel bad that I haven’t posted anything in quite a while. So judge as you may, but understand that I know exactly how bad it is).

The first rule Professor Eton Churchill taught me as a freshman was this: make your endings believable. If you were foolish enough to end a story by killing off your main character, you’d better be certain the case for death was well thought out and rehearsed. To Eton having a character die was paramount to telling the reader you were out of ideas. “You might as well never pick up a pen if every story ends with that,” he’d tell us after reading aloud a piece about a WWII soldier who’s last thoughts were of his girlfriend, or a suicidal teen dragging a razor across their skin. A lot of students hated him for that, his disregard of writer’s emotions. For a long time I did, too.

He didn’t look like a writer, either. He looked like an aged math teacher or a Massachusetts man who worked on car engines his whole life. He had the missing hair and professorial glasses, but his hands were worn and his arms far too large to be gained from lifting books. I learned later that he was fond of taking his sailboat out and spending weeks on it, which helped me understand his second lesson: don’t write dialogue your reader’s will know is dialogue. This advice took even more time to sink in than his first. He would have us read our dialogue aloud and clapped his calloused palms together whenever someone would stumble. “You see?” he’d say, “You see? Nobody in hell would speak that way. You have to have your characters talk the way you talk, the way you understand. Write the language, not the words!”

I spent hours rewriting paragraphs of dialogue just to avoid hearing his mitts slap together. Anything to avoid that yellow smile. But I think that was the idea all along.

Professor Churchill took the romance out of writing, he made it a skilled labor. We became watchmakers, not wizards that waved a quill over pages to will literary fiction into existence. We spent days thinking of what to write, perhaps days working on it, and a very quiet and humble fifteen minutes as our classmates tore it apart. All the while Professor Churchill reminded us of tone, use of showing (not telling), and handing out grades that made us feel like Hemmingway or Danielle Steele.

I’m still proud to say I did well in his class, and by the end of the semester we developed a relationship allowing discussion out of class. In my last conversation I asked the question all writers think but never say aloud: do you think I can ‘make it’? Looking back I can’t believe I had a clear idea of what it was to ‘make it’ as a writer, but I wanted validation. Eton put his head down, breathed in, and looked back up at me, “really, you’re the only person who knows that, and it’s going to be up to you to let other people know or to keep that secret all to yourself.”

Eton would clap his hands just now. Let’s get honest:

The last time I spoke to Eton he patted me on the stomach and informed me I was getting chubby. Not quite as profound, but much more accurate to what happened.

A few years later Professor Churchill retired from the university and spent his days, I imagine, writing a novel he never finished and drinking scotch on his sailboat. In September of 2008 Eton died on the water.  Nearby craft saw a sailboat in distress and found his lifeless body on board. I’ve wondered if he was happy to go that way or if he thought, as his heart stopped, that he should talk to God about how unbelievable this was. How the Almighty clearly never took Engl. 260: Writing the Short Story. I’m also curious how he’d feel about my disregard for his first rule in finishing this story. I don’t think he would have much to correct me on.

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