My time in the Creative Writing program was, after my anticipation, my dreams and my desire to embrace my magnificent destiny, a let down. The story of it can be told quite briefly.
The first 'professor' I had in my chosen program was a published author, which seemed only fitting. More than fitting. I was excited. 'Oh boy, a writer!' I thought. She could lead us into her profession, show us the ropes, give us a few tips. So the big day came, and it was with great anticipation that I awaited her arrival in class.
She was something different from the usual professors. She had disheveled iron grey hair, and her clothes were mismatched second hand, and a pair of glasses perched down on the tip of her nose. As I got to know her I found she was a very nice woman, slightly dotty- and I liked my professors slightly dotty- but she had one tiny drawback: she had absolutely no idea what she was doing in that classroom. It was the first time she had ever taught, and she was completely out to lunch.
Allow me to explain. A Creative Writing class, at that time, ran like this: The students gather. They hand out samples of their writing, or the piece they are writing at the moment. The students take these samples home and read them. The next week, lead by the professor, the class goes over the pieces one at a time and critiques them for the authors. Note the important phrase there: "lead by the professor". This was her downfall: she did not know how to lead or critique. "That was... nice." she'd say. It was all she ever said. She once privately confided in me that she was 'philosophically opposed' to telling people how they should write, which was somewhat in conflict with the whole 'teach people how to write' thing she was supposed to be doing.
Not that we were an easy class to teach. We were filled with would be poets. Lots and lots of poets, because, you know, that's where the money is. And not just any kind of poets. We had a large group of would be poets in that class who would, shall we say, chemically alter their perceptions in order to aid their writing. Those people were a challenge to critique. Critiquing is, by a large, a technical exercise. We would comment on the hows and whats- the techniques, in short- that the other classmates employed in their writings. What on earth does one say to people whose techniques began and ended with 'get stoned'? "Your use of marijuana takes away from the intensity of your writing. You should try and mix in some cocaine or meth to give your writing some focus and energy, and perhaps some heroin for visual imagery." I will take to my grave one guy's contribution to world literature:
Oh Lotus leaf, you free my mind
You make me old before my time
Only with you can I be me
So blow my mind, and set me free.
These guys thought they were doing something new, but, of course, the relation between writing and various forms of inebriation go back to the very beginnings. Even the newer chemicals have been done. William James, in his work on the varieties of religious experience, sought to mimic the mystical experience through chemistry. His drug of choice was, as I recall, ether. He tried it, and found his mind widened with the experience, and the thought incredible thoughts, but the thoughts escaped his memory when the ether passed. Determined to capture his chemically enhanced genius, James repeated his ether experiments, but this time with a pad and pen ready at hand so he could record his new found brilliance. Upon coming out of his ether binge, James discovered he had written the following: "Higamous pigamous, man is polygamous./ Higamous hogamous, woman is monogamous."
The professor, as I said, was of no help to us. Far from her guiding and influencing us, we influenced her. She came to class one day and announced that she had been so inspired by us and our poetry she had decided to try her hand at her own. She handed out her poem and read it to us immediately. I only remember snatches of it- it wasn't terribly good. But she had an expectant look on her face as she finished. "What do you think?" she asked. We found good things to say, or we made something up. Useless as she was, she was still nice and we liked her, and we didn't want to hurt her feelings. Plus, she was still going to be giving us our final grade. It would be unwise to crush someone who was grading our papers.
Some years later, I read an announcement that she had been awarded the Governor General's prize for her first book of poetry. I don't know if we should be praised for setting that in motion, or held accountable.
If I recall correctly, I got a 'B' in that class. It was a nice grade.