Lee K. Abbot, the author and professor, was one of my most favorite writing teachers. He had a human element to him both inside and outside of the classroom. He was a man’s man, but also a sensitive soul, who was not afraid of letting his students experience his blend of stern and soft. Most importantly, he was not afraid to speak the truth when it came to helping his students with their fiction endeavors.
There were other professors/authors who I was lucky to intersect with and share time with: Michael Parker, Jonathan Baumbach, Irini Spanidou, Joan Silber, Susan Shreve, Wesley Gibson – who opened his Hell’s Kitchen NYC apartment for us writers to convene and talk shop all those years– Janet Peery, and the dear Lee Smith – who taught me to avoid the now I’m going to tell you all about my life narrative. Mr. Parker, who has written too many wonderful novels to count at this point, taught me that it was okay to be my authentic self. At Rappahannock Fiction Writers Workshop, I would see him up ahead when we were out running, and I would try to catch him because it gave me something to do as I stared out at the towering corn fields. But what I took away, aside from the great writing counsel in his classroom, was that it was okay to be comfortable with all of who I was – a writer, an athlete, a corporate professional. I shed a bit of my self-consciousness witnessing Michael and other writers being themselves those summers, and that has stayed with me through the years. We are the sum of all our parts and passions, and if we are lucky, our writing possesses a human element as a result.
Irini Spanidou helped me with my graduate thesis for my MFA. I remember walking into Bradley’s Bar in a pre-9/11 NYC Greenwich Village, and getting the key to her apartment, so that I could wait for her until she came home. The intimacy of working with a great author on something that we were collectively trying to make great was not only inspiring, but a life lesson in team work: together, we were able to infuse my stories with shape and meaning. Jonathan Baumbach, our department chair at Brooklyn College’s MFA program, used to read our short stories aloud in our workshops, and I remember cringing hearing my words coming out of his mouth. But it taught me about voice and about finding authenticity and about the cringe factor – if anything I wrote was cringe worthy, it had to be cut. Not to leave out my undergraduate heroes, such as Dr. Paul Lilly, who nurtured my love of Chaucer, and Richard Frost, who believed in my creative writing enough as an undergraduate to instruct me to keep at it, to focus, to take is seriously. There were also colleagues and friends, like David Linker and Michele Hoos, who in their own pursuit of writing greatness, were never too busy to talk writing, review a manuscript, or to reassure me of what we all knew: writing is hard. It is so much more than words on a page. It is words from one’s heart and imagination shared in an attempt to evoke another’s heart and imagination: to connect.
But it was Lee K. Abbot who shared with me the nugget that has never left me: the woman on the bus image, which has stayed with me all these long years since I first encountered him at University of Iowa’s summer writing workshop back in the 90’s. The woman who was just trying to pass the time; the woman who didn’t know me, didn’t care about me, but wanted to be entertained. To step out of her life if only for those minutes that she was getting to and from her destination. Lee told us that was who we were writing for, and since that day, I’ve never written for anyone else but that woman, who somehow along the way transformed into my mom. Years back, I started to write a novel that would help her to pass the few free hours of each of her days, and then when she got cancer, I kept writing that novel thinking of her as the woman getting chemo, the woman getting blood and platelet transfusions. I was writing a novel to help her pass the endless hospital hours, the endless hours of accepting her mortality. I was writing a novel to transport her from the reality of her life and to remind her that life was still beautiful, if imperfect.
There are also the mentors who taught me to dream and to work harder; mentors who inspired me without knowing that I exist, like authors Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, and the late and incredibly talented Andre Dubus II. Reading these authors makes me feel more invested in life, in living, in writing. They make me aspire to be better. There’s also Haruki Murakami, whose incredible magical realism not only gave us the little people to ponder in 1Q84, but the ominous sheep man in Dance, Dance, Dance, and in turn, made me believe there will be a place in literature one day for my chicken lady.
Paying it forward
As a professor, I do my best to let students know that they are capable of so much more than they believe that they are. I try to instill in them a love of learning, of communication, of writing, which I believe is the greatest tool one can be equipped with in any career. There’s nothing I love more than a student sharing during our first meeting that they don’t like writing, and/or that they are terrible writers, and then to read their initial paper and to discover that they are good writers. I believe in lifting people up – in motiving, inspiring, and helping others to find the inklings of greatness within that they have somehow missed out on or have been brainwashed otherwise. For me, there is no road to greatness without inspiring others to overcome their fears, to believe in themselves, and letting them know that I believe in them. You never know in this life who you are going to inspire, and who in turn, is going to inspire you. Let’s all keep paying it forward!