“Be nice to me, Tom, I have cancer,” she said seconds before I gave her my honest opinion.
No one laughed at her comment. The tension was thick as she threw me a wink and a smirk. I wasn’t known for being diplomatic. My critiques were blunt, harsh and honest.
I thought, “I’m supposed to watch what I say just because she has Stage IV breast cancer?” If she was in a wheelchair and couldn’t speak I’d give the same feedback. This was a writing class, not a charity event. It was my turn to tell her how I really felt about the 20-page scrap she’d handed out the week before.
“I only had 48 hours to throw something together,” she added.
I shook my head and thought, “I should get paid for my feedback.”
I enrolled in my first memoir writing class in January of 2012 and immediately googled the teacher. I expected a boring curriculum vitae about a literary genius. Instead, I found pictures of a woman sporting a tattoo of a flower from her elbow to her shoulder. There were numerous articles about how Mayor Bloomberg yanked her from the Bronx school system because she had written about her former life as a sex worker and published it in the Huffington Post. She was on the front cover of the Daily News and the first page of the New York Post. The further I explored Melissa Petro, the more uneasy I felt. In the year that followed, she’d plastered episodes from her sex life in online mags such as The Rumpus, xoJane, The Friskey, Salon.com and others.
I thought, “Oh shit, what am I getting myself into?”
I’d been writing short stories for decades. I craved interesting memoirs and well-written fiction. I’d read books by Frank McCourt, Jeanette Walls, Augusten Burroughs, Paul Auster, Pete Hamill, Roth, Salinger, Hemingway and others. I felt it was time to take my writing to the next level.
“How is this woman going to teach a Saturday morning memoir class on a topic other than sex?” I wondered. A family member phoned me and said, “Get your money back! She’s teaching a writing class? What the hell is this school thinking?”
I pictured a ditzy tramp in a tight black mini-skirt, red pumps, hot pink lipstick and dangling earrings giving us raunchy lectures on plot and dialogue. My stomach felt queasy. I’d never known a prostitute or met one for that matter. But Petro was a former hooker. A “hooker/teacher” as the papers referred to her. I’d try one class and make a decision to stay, or get credit for another class. It turned out, I didn’t have an issue with the teacher; it was the quality of writing that irked me.
Each week, three or four students were assigned to hand out a 20-page excerpt from a longer piece of writing they’d been working on. It didn’t matter if the piece had been revised or fresh. The following Saturday, we’d critique it. The author being “boothed” or “critiqued” couldn’t speak until the end. After the second session, I couldn’t wait to read a segment from someone else’s life story. But, in my opinion, what I ended up reading was worthless babble with a slew of grammatical errors. Not one writer bothered to edit his work. Some of the students were graduates of Columbia, Harvard, and Barnard. How was that possible?
One woman traveled from Rye, NY and brought her laptop to class the first week as if to say, “I’m that good.” Her writing stunk, not from content, but from the overuse of smelly adjectives. I read through this mess as an osmagogue of malodorous, smellsome, graveolent and frowsty lexemes stung my eyes.
Another highly medicated lady conjured up some comedic nonsense that in my opinion, made no sense. She fancied herself the next female David Sedaris with dialogue from therapy sessions she had kept while tripping on mushrooms. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make myself care how often she laughed and rolled onto the floor in front of her shrink, one time ripping her jeans at the crotch.
A woman from Trinidad handed in a piece from a memoir about raising a son who had been diagnosed at a young age with schizophrenia. She described the exorcism performed with someone yelling about a devil. “Devil! Come out of ma son! You gittin’ all angree and causin’ him da bad life.” The first ten pages were one long sentence with no periods, commas or quotations.
I said to myself, “What in God’s name am I reading?”
I do not consider myself a master of the English language, but if you say you’re a Harvard grad, how do you have the audacity to show up to a writing class and hand in this crap? Petro gave us the standards on feedback.
“We’d like to keep this a safe environment. We’ll start out with two positives about the writer’s piece, and then two suggestions for improvement.”
I wasn’t sure how the class would react to my “constructive criticism” but I didn’t care. Safe environment? Why? If I had to slog through this gunk for eight more Saturdays, then the writer would have to listen to very little positive reinforcement. It wasn’t because I disliked the person. I wanted the author to realize, that in my opinion, if you wanted to be a writer, take it seriously. Practice your craft. It seemed that Petro and I were on the same page for the remainder of the course, only her feedback came across as much more professional.
A few writers handed in readable pieces that I enjoyed. Some of the students appreciated my feedback. They loved that I told my perspective. Most didn’t and took it personally. One lady yelled out, “You’re the Simon Cowell of this writing class!” It puzzled me that the majority of the class would praise a piece of writing that was so bad, you could smell the rotten egg odor emanating from the page. What were they afraid of, hurting someone’s feelings? My work was critiqued twice. I nodded and thanked the class but took the reviews with a pound of salt knowing that, in my opinion, half the class was illiterate.
After our final session, I thanked Melissa. The feedback she gave on my memoir was very helpful. She inspired me to keep writing and even forward a small piece I’d written for a homework assignment to some online magazines. It was published in the April 2012 edition of parentingexpress.com.
Three weeks later, I entered Advanced Memoir on a weekday evening with a different instructor. I had googled him and saw that he’d published a memoir. I was impressed. The first day he jotted down some authors on the marker board and asked if we’d read any of their work. I was intimidated. In the class, there were 12 writers I’d never met, two who came to the first session with handouts for feedback the following week. One by one we introduced ourselves to the class. Some had taken this teacher as many as five or six times. One gentleman was in his ninth consecutive session with the same teacher. I couldn’t wait to read his work.
Since this was a more experienced group (so I thought), I anticipated quality writing in the form of pristine manuscripts and page turners. Instead, I was handed, in my opinion, more rolls of toilet paper stained with run-on sentences and misspelled words. Each week I’d hear the same garbage, “I loved this piece” and “This story moved me in so many ways.”
I thought, “This crap moved me as well, from the kitchen to the bathroom with stomach cramps.”
My feedback hardly varied. I was just as brutal with my comments. When referring to the person being boothed, we had to use the word “author,” one of the teacher’s strict rules. He’d often interrupt my train of thought and ask what I meant when I said “the author’s intro put me to sleep” and “the dialogue is lame.” Some of the writers were a bunch of zombie-like neophytes when it came to the written word and I was embarrassed to be in their company. The last class couldn’t have come more quickly but I needed to keep writing. I enrolled in another writing class with the same instructor.
The second she started to cry, I heard my name in the plethora of sobs.
“Tom! Do you realize I’m writing this for my daughter so she has something to read when I’m gone….”
She wailed as three women ran behind her and hugged her as if to say, “He’s an asshole, don’t worry about it.”
I had made a friend in the class, Xiomara Maldonado, soon after the term began. We messaged back and forth a few times and started a friendship. It was in that fourth class, the night of August 2nd, that hell broke loose. The woman with Stage IV breast cancer told the class that because she had volunteered to switch booth places with someone else, she had had to quickly conjure up a piece of writing to hand in. That’s all I had to hear. She got an earful.
“First, I didn’t understand any of it. Not sure where you’re going with this. If this is part of a bigger piece, you need to sizzle us at the beginning. There’s no character development and the dialogue is just plain horrible…”
I went home and emailed Xiomara. She said I needed to be more diplomatic in my approach. We practiced back and forth. Somehow, I couldn’t imagine that happening. I received an email from the teacher. In some ways, I felt terrible. I emailed an apology to the student. She sent me back a “go screw yourself” message. The teacher emailed us, frustrated.
Two weeks later another woman handed in an odd piece of writing written in the 3rd person. It was about her after-hours occupation as a massage therapist offering happy endings. She didn’t prep us. I thought the writing was plagiarized from a romance novel. That’s what I told her. The following week she never showed.
After the woman with breast cancer left on a vacation for South Africa and never came back, the massage therapist dropped out. The final showdown came after the sixth class. I had critiqued a piece of writing from a woman who had broken off a ten-year relationship with her boyfriend. It was a one-sided rant about her long-time nebbish.
She slandered him by saying, “You called me to ask me how to open a can of tuna fish. I’m on a date, you prick.”
I ripped it apart saying I wanted to hear his side. Most of her dialogue was written out of frustration. It was far from believable. She stood up after class and began a heated argument with the teacher. It got loud, then louder. I left when the walls began to shake. I received an email from the instructor the following morning telling me never to take his class again.
I wondered if I had done some emotional damage to some students along the way. Could it be that I was discouraging the next Dave Eggers? I even imagined a hysterical young girl calling her parents after class and hiccupping into the receiver.
But then again, in my opinion, these three women did have excess baggage. They were a group of disturbed women who should have never been in a writing class. I’m not one to hold back. If you hand in an unpolished manuscript, I will shred you, but in a way I feel will make you a better writer. That’s what people needed to understand.
I took a different teacher next. I’ve stuck with her and the same school because I’ve made some very dear friends in her classes. I’m sure there are those who don’t want to see or hear from me again. I’m fine with that. The handouts I read weekly are still laden with bad sentence structure, raunchy distasteful content and grammatical errors. Two of last term’s students handed in 30 page single-spaced bore-fests. How does that happen? An author was formally invited to one of our classes last term. She had written a book that will soon appear as a series on Netflix. Only eight out of 14 students showed that night. Where is the respect? I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders.
After the term ended, I made suggestions to the school on a written evaluation. In my opinion, students should have to hand in a 10-page piece to be critiqued by a board of writing teachers, and wait to be appointed to the next level. I’m at the point where the only feedback I care about is the teacher’s.
I’ve since read my second instructor’s memoir and enjoyed it. I emailed him afterwards and he responded favorably. In my opinion, the dirty air has been cleared. I’ve kept in touch with Ms. Petro ever since that first class. Xiomara and I are still the best of friends. If you want to be a writer, hug that keyboard every day. Pound those keys. Keep rewriting until your fingers bleed. Take a writing class and be a perfectionist. Learn to take criticism, even if it’s harsh. It hurts, but there may be a kernel of truth in it that will make you a better writer.
In the words of Winston Churchill, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” Now that’s nice.