As an academic offering it was on the light side, but I learned a lot from the attitudes and expectations of my fellow students. Quite a few of them balked at the notion of a writing "craft," arguing that the act should be personal, free-form and essentially immune to criticism. (Why they'd signed up for such a class was a mystery to me.) Others had aspirations to write their memoirs. A few were self-nominated candidates as the next Great American Novelist. Over the course of six months I read a lot of clumsy prose, a few scary and obviously true confessions, and a couple of passages so delightful that I remember them to this day.
The following autumn I tried out an Extension College writing program. We were taught by professional, published writers. I recall my delight at their metaphor (overused, but new to me) about how our craft was about not rules, but tools—as important to good writing as saws and hammers are fundamental to the making of a table or chair. Again, a few students pushed back at this, fearful that we would be told how to write. What our instructors really were telling us was how we might write, trusting us to understand that as beginners we were a long way from informed choices in such matters. Still, there was grousing in the ranks: "She just didn't get my point," or "He can't see past the rough part to the stuff that works." In most cases what the grousers were being told (and not always gently) was more like "Your table has a hole in it," or "Your chair tips over." Hard lessons, but essential.
Some dropped out. The thick-skinned moved on, in my case (thick skin plus masochistic madness) to an MFA program. I read and reread, wrote and revised, then revised some more, read others' work and critiqued it, and sat silently, and sometimes sullenly, through the critiques of others. Eventually I got my degree, and I kept writing—a published story here and there, sometimes a flurry of them all at once, making me imagine that I finally had the beast by the tail, followed inevitably by a long hail of rejections as the beast turned and gnawed on the raw stump where my ego had been. The writing life.
About five years after graduation I was invited to speak at a local writers' conference. I proudly dusted off a presentation I'd done as part my graduate thesis. Its content isn't, and wasn't, important. What mattered was how completely I had misjudged my audience. These were not master's degree students, nor indeed students of any kind outside the weekend at hand. In fact they were the very people I'd met at those university classes fifteen years before—the free-formers, the memoirists, the wannabe-novelists. As I trotted out my lecture I saw faces fall, brows squint, and heads cock quizzically. I tried to improvise. I backed off my esoteric rant (whatever it was) and started talking about—you guessed it—hammers and saws and tables and chairs, about tools and skills and choices and practice. I was building up quite a head of steam when I realized, to my surprise, that the scowls weren't going away. Then an elderly man in the second row called out: "But you're making it all sound so hard! We want to write for fun!"
At my wits' end, I opened my mouth and heard myself say, in a tone just as exasperated as his, "Hey, this isn't singing in the shower." There were a few baffled giggles. A couple of slouchers sat up straight. Figuring that I had nothing to lose, I continued: "If you're only writing for fun, then stay home and write a million pages. Nobody is going to read them, so who cares how good they are? I assumed you signed up for this conference because you want to have readers, because you want to come out of the shower and onto the stage, and start singing for someone other than yourself. You're right, it is hard. And more fun than you can imagine." They all looked at me like I'd begun speaking in Latin. I have no idea how I made it through the rest of the class.
After the obligatory cocktail hour that evening, my questioner tracked me down as I was putting on my coat. To my surprise he shook my hand vigorously, and told me that he'd needed all his life to hear what I'd told him—some perspective, some context for what he was doing, night after night at his typewriter, and now his computer, slaving away in solitude. He told me that "singing in the shower" was an excellent metaphor and a great piece of advice.
"So are you going to come out onto the stage soon?" I asked him.
"Hell no," he said. "And I'm not going to any more conferences either. But thanks!"
It was a watershed moment for me as a writer. For even if no one remembers a single story I published, I still can be certain that I touched at least one life with my work.