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Writing Teachers I Have Known
By Angel Sands Gunn
The first one I found online. She taught Intro to Chic Lit, and I signed up in ignorance and desperation. I had been writing about a mom on the Upper East Side who was losing it after having her first child.
A thinly veiled diary, but that first year, writing seemed my only defense against a well of fears I had never before suffered. In motherhood, I lost my identity and simultaneously found a new life. Nursing, singing, naming every little thing we passed. Bird, boat, tree, light. The joy of hearing her voice, as it formed, from gurgles to sounds to sentences. My experience felt singular, though universal. Writing fueled my days and helped me process the difficult parts.
I would watch my child in the late morning, after playtime, for the first signs of sleep. A lengthened blink, the drooping eyelid, a mere yawn. Sometimes, I had to walk her in the stroller around the block or out to the East River and back before she’d go under, but thoughts of writing filled my mind as I paced. I’d repeat phrases like a mantra so I’d remember later when she slept. And I’d rush to my computer and pour out the words like balm for my soul.
After a few weeks of virtual class, the teacher responded by email. “Chic lit is usually funny and flirtatious.”
I apologized to her. To myself, I criticized my writing. It was dark and depressing, maybe even murky. But the door had opened. I didn’t turn back.
The next one taught a short story class at night. My husband came home early from work, understanding there was something urgent about my need to attend. I fled our home to the classroom over a stationery shop on Spring Street. It felt strange not to have my child in tow.
The teacher looked like a rock star and taught like a hibachi chef. She launched a story like an onion, and its pieces landed, diced into perfect piles. The class exhaled, frozen in awe, her precision exhilarating. She drew diagrams on the whiteboard and told us what could be done, how the story could be recomposed. She brushed back her hair, tucked her thumbs into a studded belt. My heart pounded. I admired her but did not yet have any idea how to follow her instructions.
We moved to Virginia. The children got into school. I had written about them, our transitions and moves, our experience on a farm in the Catskills. I found a class in Charlottesville—the teacher a gentle sage. She nodded her head and patted my pages like a well-fed baby, suggesting how I could revise. “That would be good, I think.” Her bright eyes shone with mercy.
Then, an absence from classes, as writing came more fluidly. Characters appeared on their own accord. Mama and Mira, butter churns and guitars, a mountaintop farm in West Virginia. The characters began to fill pages. Their voices rose in my mind like friends. Then, I got stuck, thought of stopping. For the first time since I gave birth, I didn’t know what came next.
I saw a listing for a fiction class and decided it was time. The teacher gave his advice slowly, unfurling his thoughts like flags. His ideas rumbled like drums against the air. He laid his hand on the copy of what I had written.
I saw the book to its end, each sentence following the last. A path rose before me.
Last summer, in Kentucky, teachers and students gathered on porches after dinner. Weavers, bluegrass musicians, poets, professors and writers sat together as the sound of a fiddle lightened the July air. In a lecture, the teacher talked of coal, religion, family and escape. It seemed I was walking in the world of my novel, fiction and reality looking each other in the face.
When the keynote speaker arrived, I cleared her dishes and nodded hello. Her penetrating eyes smiled. Later, her voice lilted from the podium as she addressed the crowd. “If you don’t enjoy writing, then do something else. Go bake bread.” She was the maternal spirit of writing embodied. Her message went back to where it all started for me.
Learning to write has not been a solitary endeavor, as so many think. It has been a deep and spiritual quest, a communal process of reflection and deepening understanding. These essential guides have quested on their own, too, to earn their gifts, to vent the passions fueling them. Together, we intersected, affecting each other’s paths, joining on the journey, up a switchback mountain road, spiraling towards home.
***This piece first appeared in WriterHouse and was republished here with permission. ***
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