We all have stories of people who encouraged our efforts to write and some who discouraged our efforts. My story is a combination of the two. Years ago Richard Elman came to Wichita State University and taught a course on creative writing. It was a tutorial course, one in which individuals met with him weekly during which time he would critique our work.
I gave him a short story that I was somewhat proud of. The next week I arrived at his office with my fingers crossed that he would see some talent in it — that he would say something encouraging to fan the tiny, feeble flame that was my writing ego.
I sat down across from his desk. We greeted each other in a nice cordial manner, then he threw the manuscript on the floor and said, “If this was the only copy that existed in the world of your story, and it suddenly combusted, I wouldn’t waste a drop of my spit trying to put out the flames.”
I didn’t cry, well, not until I got to my car and contemplated whether or not I would ever go back to his office. But then I asked myself why I was going in the first place. I was going to learn to be a better writer. That was the whole point and if anyone could teach me about writing, who better than a man who obviously had no regard whatsoever for my feelings.
I went back the next week and the next and the next.
Mr. Elman was, to some extent, ruthless, but he was exactly what I needed; he was a great teacher. I wish I could remember everything he taught me, but when it comes to any art, the lessons are evident in the work. They are seen on the page; they are heard in the nuisance of words.
I was sad when I learned of his death just a few years after he’d taught me so much. He taught me to be tough and to remember that the quality of writing is all that matters. There’s no crying in writing (at least not in getting critiqued)!
He also taught me to be present in the writing, in every word, and like all great teachers, I know he lives in the writing all of those he taught.