The Hard Truth
Senior year of college and I’m in the hallway outside my Advanced Fiction Writing workshop, waiting for it to start, absolutely terrified. I couldn’t figure out why I was so afraid. My leg wouldn’t stop shaking.
This workshop was run by Alan Cheuse, a teacher I greatly admired, but one who was brutally candid in his comments. His remarks on our work were ruthless, rigid, and absolutely right. We were all desperate to win his praise.
I watched as Alan walked around the corner, my dread deepening with each of his footsteps. I remember how everything about him seemed big back then: his girth, his head, his personality, his voice. He looked at me from under his mess of gray hair and grunted. I wasn’t reassured. The other students and I followed him in.
After some introductory comments about last week’s assignments, Alan asked if I was ready for the class to review my short story–a melancholy piece about a man going blind, which was exactly as emotionally childish and manipulative as it sounds.
One of Alan’s rules was that our stories had to be read out loud; after all, there’s no better way to understand a sentence’s awkward construction than to hear it. He asked if I’d like to read it, or if I’d prefer he read it to the class. I asked him to read it. Alan studied my story, flipped past the first page, the second, and then started midway down the third.
He read a couple of sentences and stopped. Asked the class:
“Why’d I start here?”
“Because that’s where the story actually starts?” one of the students asked.
“Always start with the action,” Alan instructed. He read a few more lines, then stopped at the word “mumbles.”
“Mumbles?” Alan asked the class, and smirked. “Who knows how to mumble? Has anyone actually heard someone mumble? Let’s all try it. Mumblemumblemumblemumble…”
The class joined in, rather gleefully.
Another one of Alan’s rules was that, while he and the class reviewed someone’s work, the writer was not allowed to speak. This was a rough rule to follow. You wanted nothing more than to leap on the table, point at the hapless philistine who misunderstood your prose, and berate him or her mercilessly. Alan understood that. And he understood that, when your work is in front of an agent, editor, or any other reader, you won’t have the opportunity to explain away mistakes, or offer excuses for your carelessness.
The work has to stand on its own, without your support.
The critique went on. There was a page where Alan stopped at every single sentence to point out my mistakes. My story was used to show common writing errors, to demonstrate exactly how you shouldn’t create a character…at one point, I think he blamed one of my adverbs for the rise of Nazi Germany. And my classmates cheerfully agreed with him, chiming in happily as he tore my work to shreds.
Our class was a total of three hours. Two hours were spent on that story.
I felt angry. I felt like crying. I felt like I’d failed. Strike that last part. I had failed. The story wasn’t good. Alan wasn’t wrong. Truthfully, if I re-read that story now, I’d likely realize he went easy on me.
But that night, when I finally staggered out of the classroom, probably bleeding from somewhere, I didn’t have the benefit of time to act as a salve. I went to my truck and sat in it for a long time and I hated that man. I hated being put through that experience: humiliated, treated like a rank amateur, mocked by classmates who weren’t any better than I was.
And I burned, like I never had before, with a desire to do better.
So thanks for everything, Alan. Rest in peace, my friend.
I’ll try to do better.
E.A. Aymar is the author of I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (2013) and You’re As Good As Dead (2015), both from Black Opal Books. His column, Decisions and Revisions, appears monthly in the Washington Independent Review of Books, and he is also the Managing Editor of The Thrill Begins, ITW‘s online resource for aspiring and debut thriller writers.In addition to ITW, he is a member of the Mystery Writers of America and SinC. He holds a Masters in Literature and lives with his wife and son, and a small animal menagerie, just outside of Washington, D.C. He also hosts Noir at the Bar in Washington DC so if you’re in town, drop by.