Writers on Writing #95: Lesléa Newman
Dear Professor H.,
It’s been more than forty years since I took your Introduction to Creative Writing Class, yet I still remember that very first Tuesday morning when I sat on a squeaky metal chair, my spiral notebook with its shiny red cover open in front of me, waiting for your arrival. Every molecule of my being was quivering with excitement. I had already made up my mind that I was going to be a poet. In junior high, I’d devoured the confessional poems of Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. In high school, I’d lapped up the beat poetry of Anne Waldman and Diane di Prima. At last I was in college and it was my turn to clutch my pen in my hand, pour out my heart, and share my verse with the world.
As I chewed the tasteless plastic cap of my blue Bic pen, you strode into the room and dropped a tall stack of books onto your wooden teacher’s desk with a thud. Silently you turned to the blackboard and printed the words “Serious Pleasure” at the very top, underlined them twice and then let the white stick of chalk fall into its metal holder with a clatter. Finally you turned to face us. I noticed right away how handsome you were. You had the solid build of an athlete—a football player maybe?—the dreamy eyes of a poet, and the plump lips of a good kisser. You also had a gold wedding band on your left hand and brown Docksiders on your rather large feet. You wore khaki slacks, a white alligator shirt and a weary expression as if you already knew that we were all going to disappoint you. And if that weren’t enough, you heaved an enormous sigh to let us know that we were all hopelessly beneath you but you were stuck with us. And we were stuck with you.
If you meant to intimidate us, Professor H., you certainly succeeded. You distributed the syllabus and launched into the course requirements without once explaining the phrase “serious pleasure” which stared down at us like an angry gargoyle. My classmates shifted in their seats and I saw many of them flipping through the thick course booklet we all carried around, searching, no doubt, for another “gut course” that met on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9:15.
Eventually you stopped talking about your expectations of us in that slow Southern drawl that meandered through our New England classroom like a river and began our first lesson. “We’ll start with sonnets,” you said. The word elicited a collective groan. You remained unfazed. “Yes, you’re all going to write a sonnet,” you repeated in that honey-oozing voice. “You’ll hate me now, but you’ll thank me later.”
That night sitting in my dorm room at my tiny student desk under the burning glow of my clip-on lamp, I spent hours working on my sonnet. I wrestled with iambic pentameter. I sweated over the rhyme scheme. I fretted over the turn. I rewrote the ending couplet a hundred times. After dozens of revisions, all written by hand, I finally took my Smith Corona portable typewriter out of its peach-colored case, and typed up my poem. I had never worked so hard on anything in my life.
When our class next met, you collected our sonnets, stuffed them into a brown accordion folder, and proceeded to teach us about something called a terza rima. I listened and took notes, all the while wondering what you would say about my sonnet. Would it surprise you? Delight you? Impress you? Most of all, would it show you that I wasn’t like the other students yawning in front of you? No, like you, I was a real writer. Surely you would recognize from the fourteen lines I had just handed in that we were kindred souls.
The following Tuesday, you handed back our papers without a word. I tried to catch your eye as you approached my desk, but you were having none of it. You extended my paper upside-down, I reached for it, you moved on. I waited until you were on the other side of the room before I turned it over. I was both dismayed and relieved to see that there were no marks upon it, until my eyes reached the very bottom of the page where I saw, in a tilted, southpaw scrawl, the words “so what” written in red ink, followed by a question mark.
So what? So what? I read those two words at least 100 times, my heart hammering, my cheeks turning red as the ink you had used to write them. So what? I was absolutely crushed. Did I really have nothing to say? Was my dream of becoming a writer ridiculous? Were my parents right? Should I forget this poetry business and become the social worker, secretary, or nurse they kept urging me to be?
More than four decades have passed since you wrote “so what?” on the bottom of my sonnet, Professor H., and I have done a lot of writing during that time. But one thing I have never written is a note of thanks to you.
“You’ll hate me now but you’ll thank me later.” I never hated you, Professor H. In fact, I had a little crush on you. And though you crushed my schoolgirl heart, I want to thank you for the two red hot words you seared onto the bottom of my poem and into my brain like marks from a branding iron. Because after I licked my wounds in the privacy of my dorm room and dried my eyes (oh yes, many tears were shed) I got mad. F.U. Professor H.! How dare you write “so what?” on my sonnet and stomp on my poetic dream?
Actually, Professor H., whether you meant to or not, you did me an enormous favor. Your words lit a fire under me that blazed for the rest of the semester. I’ll show you, I thought night after night as I sat at my desk under the harsh light of that clip-on lamp shining down upon my notebook bright as a Hunter’s Moon. Your words dared me to become a better writer and I took on that challenge like a champ. I wrote and wrote and wrote, determined to accomplish the impossible task of pleasing you. The closest I came was a comment from you on the bottom of a short story: “Your fiction is better than your poetry.” Was that a compliment or an insult? To this day, I’m really not sure.
But so what? Forty years later, Professor H., I have had a change of heart. I no longer think you were being cruel to me. Actually I think you were being kind. I might even flatter myself into thinking that you did recognize the real writer sitting in front of you, nervously splitting the ends of her waist-length hair as she listened to you explaining enjambment, and decided to give her a gift: the gift of “so what?”
To this day, everything I write is put to the “so what?” test. Those two brutal and brutally honest words taught me that what I place on the page has to matter. It’s not enough for a piece to be beautifully structured or stylistically pleasing. Poems and stories have to mean something. They can’t be throwaway or inconsequential or frivolous. They have to improve the stark beauty of the blank page that they are written upon. They cannot waste the readers’ time.
And so, when I write, I take serious pleasure in making sure that every word counts. And for that, Professor H., I humbly thank you.
Lesléa Newman is the author of 65 books for readers of all ages including the novel, The Reluctant Daughter, the short story collection, A Letter to Harvey Milk, the poetry collection, Still Life with Buddy, the children’s book, Heather Has Two Mommies, and the novel-in-verse, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. Her literary awards include poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation. A former poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts, she teaches at Spalding University’s low-residency MFA program. Her newest poetry collection, I Carry My Mother, will be published by Headmistress Press in January 2015.