Dumpster Diving

Dumpster DivingDecades ago I took a university writing class with a respected and much lauded professor who rattled off a list of rules that all good writers must absorb as the writer’s bible, and then declared why none of us undergrads would meet his requirements even if we conformed. My penned notes on his first lecture filled many lined pages with not a single doodle enhancing the margins. The papers were creased with the sweat of my hands as I’d written, the ink smudged by the nervous energy of trying to listen attentively and commit every significant comment to the notebook. For posterity, for future reference, for guidance in my lame efforts to become a writer. His final words, actually even his very first words, were that he’d like to see far fewer faces at the next lecture because we were not the students he wanted to teach.

At the end of his class, I walked out of the room with my head reeling, a sense of illness brought on by the knowledge that the previous four years of college pursuit were a total waste of time. As he’d accused, though he’d addressed the entire room of 40 or so upper level students, I was unqualified to ever attempt to write a story, so ignorant that I couldn’t function within the narrow corridor of competence as he’d described. I couldn’t live by his rules because I was already a total failure. He spoke to all of us but I took it personally. He spoke to me.

The dizzying buzz in my brain assured me that I was as incompetent as he’d expected me to be, that his initial evaluation after calling my name from the attendance record confirmed his suspicion that I would never live up to anyone’s expectations of successful writer – or successful anything. Perhaps dumpster diving might suit me. At least then I had the potential of dredging up something useful from the bottom of the bin, something practical for the life of a loser. That’s what he expected of me, of all of us. It was that class, so late in my long years of attending college, and a few rejection letters (that I’d been warned I should expect for the few stories I’d submitted for publication consideration, rejections being the norm for new writers) that convinced me I didn’t have the right stuff. That I didn’t have the write stuff to be a writer. With only this final semester of college before I could graduate, my credits hovering on the maybe-not-enough-units line, and a bank account that couldn’t support one more semester to make up a failed attempt, I dropped his class. Frantic rearrangement of department allocations for a few of my classes, and I did manage to graduate “on time,” but my wobbly confidence fell over the cliff. After college I did little to pursue writing as an actual career and eventually created a measure of success in another field.

How many of us who wanted to become someone – a ballerina, a rocket scientist, an inventor, an ambassador on behalf of our country – found ourselves waylaid by the doubt of stepping outside the hallowed halls of university and encountering the real world of looming bills, demanding employers, and sewers to be cleaned? I wasn’t the first, the only, the last. It took me decades to understand that the famous professor’s clever manipulation of an apprehensive young woman produced exactly what he wanted me to become: someone whose papers he didn’t have to read or grade. I was what he’d nurtured: a drop out and a failure. I was also what I’d nurtured: a fool cowering at the bottom of a dumpster.

But what the famous professor didn’t count on was that I would scrabble from the dumpster and gather myself as a person of merit. He didn’t consider that I’d have something more than his rigid rules or qualifications to measure success. I have passion about what I do, what I write. Passion carried me through a whole crapload of insecurity. I survived a latent start to surface from the dregs of the bin to make a person out of the nervous aura of the student. I’d never been a brilliant prodigy but I’ve always been resilient. And I’d always been passionate about who I was, what I might become.

Nearly 12 years ago I resurrected my dormant desire to write. I wrote with a frenzy, stimulated by then-current needs to change who I was, and an aged longing to do what I felt I should have done with my life. Late at night the computer glowed and hummed, helping me craft and hoard my novels. When I wasn’t near the boxy beast, I thought writing and kept penned notes about what to revise, what to write next. The excitement of my childhood, of my early college years when I envisioned becoming the next great Dickens (Charlotte, of course,) enervated me. I’m encumbered by practical needs and responsibilities, all the everyday necessities that get in the way of a creative life – like most of us –  but nothing can stop me writing now.

I finally learned what a smarter student would have learned in that first class: an indifferent teacher cannot make me a bad writer. Only I can do that. Likewise, only I can make myself a good writer. The rules may assist or impede but if I write with passion, ain’t nothing gonna get in my way, baby. Put that in your cup and stir it up, drink it down, and get outta my way. I am a writer. That took a very long breath and a voice from deep in my diaphragm, but, there, I’ve said it: I am a writer.

And here’s the coup de grace: I can no longer remember the name of that luminous college professor.

Be well, friends.

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21 thoughts on “Dumpster Diving

  1. Really good to read this. Thanks for writing – righting yourself. Les Brown, the motivational speaker, says you have to get the toxic people out of your life. He also says you need to “take a leap”, chase the things that burn inside, that you must do. I am glad you are doing just that.

    • Thank you, Buddy. I now understand about toxic people but this was decades ago and I was very young. I had so much excitement over taking the class that it was hard to rectify the man with his reputation as a tough but solid instructor. Had I been a bit wiser, I might have seen through him, but neither I nor a large group of other students had the stomach for that kind of humiliation.

      I like your image of things that burn inside. I’m no longer afraid of that fire and hope you’re pursuing your own dreams.

  2. I’ve learned over the years that there are good teachers and bad ones.Good teachers encourage everyone, whether they personally believe in a student’s success or not. Sadly, there are too few of them.

    Bad teachers can destroy lives because they shatter confidence. While it’s true that no one but you can be responsible for your writing, it’s also true that the college professor who treated you like that damaged your confidence.

    And I’d say you’ve definitely proven that professor wrong by this point in time! This post is beautifully written.

    • Kyaza, you’re right, teaching as a profession is no guarantee of quality, and everyone has war stories about bad teachers. Fortunately, I have many stories about wonderful teachers and maybe I’ll tell one of those in another post.

  3. This post reminds me of a writing teach I had, who decided to pick one student and use that student as an instrument to put down everyone else. She photocopied his short story, handed it out to all of us and stated that this was a publishable story. She paid no attention to the fact that everyone wrote in a different style and contradicted her own teaching (for students to find their own voices) principle. By handing out that story she confirmed that she only preferred to mark stories written in first person, present tense and little else. It was the moment I decided that I wouldn’t waste any more money on the course.
    It’s exactly as stated in well written post: an indifferent teacher cannot make one a bad writer.

    • Ana, I am so sorry about the experience you had with a terrible teacher. I do think that teaching any arts related subject may veer one toward a personal bias than might be supported by the standards of that curriculum. It’s no reason for the humiliating style you’ve described. Glad you simply called it quits. There are other teachers and many are excellent. I hope you found them.

  4. It sounds to me more like this teacher didn’t want to instruct the class because they were either not good enough as a writer in their mind, or wholly unqualified to teach a writing class in the first place. You’re probably better off for not having stayed in their class, even though it waylaid your writing career for all those years.

    • You’re right, he didn’t want to teach at least some of us and it may have been an unorthodox cherry picking method. I also bear some responsibility for letting someone defeat me so quickly, but I don’t think I would have gotten anything good from remaining and am satisfied that I dropped out. Hope you’ve have had better experiences with most of your teachers.

  5. I am what some would call a late-bloomer to the writing world. And although I am not a professional writer, I am a writer. For a little over a year now, I have been blogging through my world of personal experiences via the personal essay. My mantra, inspire and be inspired, has guided the words that find their way onto the written page. Two ideals, authenticity and vulnerability, have allowed me to remain true to that mantra.

    Although I had never realistically attempted to pursue writing as a career path, I feel a connection with your article and experience, nonetheless. You see, the universe had attempted to wake me up to the desires inside. And each time, I was brought back to the “real world” of responsibilities, the societal expectation to receive a steady paycheck, climb the corporate ladder, only to reach one of the highest rungs on that ladder, look around, and realize that my ladder was leaning against the wrong wall.

    So, I was never told outright that I would fail as a writer. However, I was never encouraged to pursue it as an opportunity either. And although I certainly hold a biased opinion, I am not sure which one presents more difficulty. Being told I could not exceed may just have propelled me to become successful at it for the sake of proving someone wrong. Or no, who knows? But, never knowing about a potential path that my be the one you are meant to be on is more disturbing to me. It is why I want to leave a blank canvas for my son to paint upon. I want him to explore every domain that interests him. In technology, in the arts, in sports, in skill-based endeavors.

    We live, we learn, and we hopefully aim to make the world a better place for future generations. I may never be a published author making money from my writing. Or, maybe I will, who knows? That doesn’t change who I am. Writing makes me come alive. And in the words of Howard Thurman, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. For what the world needs is more people who have come alive.”

    I am a writer. Thank you Sharon 😉

    • Dave, you seem like an excellent model. Your son will benefit from your passion and your acceptance of him traveling on his own journey. What a lucky son he is!
      And yes, you are a writer. I hope your path fulfills you.

  6. I shared this with my best friend who had a professor do just that to her last semester. Thank you for sharing your experience with us!

  7. What a difference from my workshop with Richard Bausch. He started the first class by telling us all we were excellent writers–to never again ever doubt that–or we wouldn’t be in the room. My chin went up, my spirits soared, and I solved a problem that had plagued me for years.

    I hate that you went through that because I know for a fact you are excellent. You’ll be the breakout writer of the elder set.

    One other thing–his attitude may be why you went into teaching: to be sure students had encouragement rather than brow beating. So, it may have done some good.

    • Jacqui, I do try to remember that my profession only gives me the right to try to open the doors for students to take the peek beyond, not the right to confine them to my ideas.
      I did learn how not to teach but it was an “expensive” course. I’ll be looking into Bausch’s class next year!
      Thank you for always being my supporter.

  8. I hate it when people who are supposed to be educators do nothing but demean people they don’t even know – all from a sense of arrogance and entitlement. I just want to go back in time and bust my inner Julia Sugarbaker out on him (yeah, I’m old, for those of you who get the reference 😉 )

    I’m also a re-bloomer, after years of trying to submit to publishers and deciding that I must not be good enough, since I’d been rejected so many times.

    I’m glad you re-bloomed, too.

  9. F him! What’s that saying? “Those who can’t do, teach?”

    So, so glad to hear you put that, uh, person, in your past where he belongs. “I finally learned what a smarter student would have learned in that first class: an indifferent teacher cannot make me a bad writer. Only I can do that.” True that.

    • BTW, I guess I should admit that the other profession in which I made my mark was as a (drumroll) teacher. Art teacher, and I loved it for many years. Still teaching, now as an assistant, and I love it also. Kids are wonderful to work with.

  10. Thank you for the memory of the fabulous Sugarbaker sisters. Much of what I recall about them is from the parodies made of the show, some of which were made by the actresses themselves. What a hoot they were.Dixie Carter and Delta Burke delivered their lines perfectly and were outrageous and righteous. When one of the sisters made an entrance, you all shut up and listened! If you don’t know what we’re talking about here, it was a TV sitcom called Designing Women. Look it up – well worth exploring the Internet for episodes.
    And thank you for that great new word – I am proud to be in the ranks of the re-bloomers.

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