Wednesday, January 30, 2008

How can I help you?

I bookmarked this image because of those ultra-cool paperclips. But now that I look at it, that "HELP" message coming from the D- is bugging me. I don't think a student would find that amusing. What if someone wrote on a draft of one of my poems: Help me! I'm trite and confusing and annoyingly obtuse and over-wordy and under-imaged and the only thing I'm clearly, clearly saying is: D-. (Not even a satisfying F. A hanging-by-my-pity D-.)

Not that I ever had a poetry professor that handed out that kind of nasty feedback. I only took one English class in college* ---(GASP)---because I majored in physics and that sucked up a lot of time and I could test out of the required freshman English rigmarole. Then I had the great idea to switch majors when I switched schools, and cramming all the requirements for that major (government) into two years left little time for English classes with reputations for requiring 10,000 pages of reading a week.

But the point of this story is that although I had but one English class, it apparently holds sway over the women of this family, because I recently discovered that my daughter is taking the exact same class with the exact same professor that I did.

ME: How's your Poetry Writing teacher? Interesting?

DAUGHTER: Yes, he's nice. Kind of eccentric. Wears an eye-patch.

ME: Eye-patch? (memories come flooding back)

We go to the college faculty page and look him up. Yup. Same professor. Same class. It's not confirmed yet, but I'm betting you it's the same syllabus, too.

I still have poems that I wrote for that class, but only one has teacher comments written on it. The feedback is gentle---checkmarks with "nice touch" beside a few lines, and then, several penciled comments, asking me to clarify and expand on my first attempt: "Good impulse, but I can't quite apprehend the comparison." "The penultimate section seems to promise more. Any strong possibilities?"

I remember being scared in that class. Scared of failing to produce a poem each week. Scared of what the other students would say about what I did scrape together. Scared of appearing ignorant when one boy called me up to discuss his opus to John Coltrane, and he went on and on about jazz, and I had no idea, no idea what he was talking about. But the teacher didn't give me reason to fear. And I'm grateful for that.

Years later, I've had the pleasure of working with a few different editors, and my agent, who've all given me feedback on my work. To a person, they have all been exquisitely polite, insightful, and kind. It's obvious that they care passionately about the words I've given them on the page, but they serve the greater good of the work by offering to me, the creator of that work, their best thoughts and support as I struggle to answer their questions for myself.

You might be afraid of editors or agents---they are wicked smart after all, and they hold the keys to publishing's doors---but I've never met one that would diss you like that paperclip talk bubble does. Sure, their honesty may hurt, sometimes---and they most definitely will turn down manuscripts that aren't right for them---but they are in the business of truly HELPING writers, and who else can you honestly say has the patience for that?

* I'm not counting Linguistics, although I loved it. And I did take one French literature course, but as it was taught entirely in French, I had to analyze the most amazing French poems in my horribly stumbling and inadequate French vocabulary. All in all, it was tragique.


  1. Wow... I don't feel so alone anymore.

    I have a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management - not English, not even close. I used to wear a suit to work every day. I worked as an important Restaurant Manager in Walt Disney World. I miss those days only because whenever I walked through the doors of that restaurant I had instant respect. Now, I write, I substitute teach, and I take care of my three wonderful, yet not appreciative kids. My suit days are over and I am trying to prove myself in a world of accomplished and prolific writers. Agh!

    Glad to know I am not alone...

  2. Um, I'm still stuck on the fact that you majored in physics. Sara. You gotta be kidding me here. No wonder you're so good at golf.

  3. Yeah, I wouldn't laugh at that cutesey plea-for-help thingie on a paper either, and if I were a teacher, I'd not even dare to do that.

    I swear I'm not trying to drive 7-Imp traffic here, but I must say, what with your Coltrane reference, that I reviewed an upcoming picture book today that is all about him with some CRAZY GOOD art in it!

    Jules, 7-Imp

  4. P.S. I love that your daughter's taking the same class you did.


  5. I wish studying physics made me good at golf, Liz. I think I was more interested in the cool theories than the actual nitty-gritty of it. Hence, the major switch.

    Jules, I could've used that picture book for some basic knowledge! Plus, it looks amazing.

    Amy, managing three kids is an accomplishment in and of itself. And squeezing in the writing, too! All without a suit. :)

  6. I know I'm late in responding, but I have to throw my 2¢ in. I would SO use that clip with my students. They do get my sense of humor and would completely understand. I have a policy that students may resubmit any work done during the course of the semester that is less than perfect. I tell them that if a teacher presents a lesson that bombs, or students don't get, they must reteach. So, if their work is less than perfect, why would I not allow them to revisit it?

    And as for that red D-, I do give low grades, but have an aversion to red. I use purple or green. They're much less offensive!

  7. I think its awesome that you majored in Physics. I'm so jealous that my sister's getting her PhD in Nuclear Physics and I (just) got my Masters in Library Science. Not that there's anything wrong with being a librarian... cause then I get to buy your book and make my teens read it! :) (I'm reading Letters From Rapunzel and I love it... although it makes me cry too)Anyway, whenever we hang out, my sister tries to tell me what she's doing. I get that quizzical puppy look where you tilt your head to the side with big eyes. Then she starts talking really slowly for me. :) BTW, I got my undergrad in English Lit... and what do you do with classes like "Sentiment and Scandal", "Elizabethan & Jacobean Drama" and "18th Century British Literature"? You become a librarian. :)

  8. BTW, paper clips are such a scarce treasure at my library, that I would be afraid to bring those to work. I'm sure everyone would love them, of course, but I would quickly end up with none. :(

  9. Cathy, I don't know what I was thinking, starting out in physics. I think some part of me just wanted to know how the world worked, you know? I wound up switching when I realized that the work that a physicist does was not the work I wanted to do. I did take a minor in it, because why waste all that coursework?

    And now, I have moments when I wish I'd gotten my MLS. I'm just an academic mess.

    Thanks so much for sharing Letters From Rapunzel with your teen readers. I adored my librarians growing up and listened to what they recommended, means a lot to me that you'd do the same.


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