I wrote a 250-word, two paragraph story on assignment for Pamela Painter's short short class. This story concerned a woman who visits her mother, dying of Alzheimer's in a nursing home. Together, they sing Christmas carols, though the dying mother has otherwise lost all powers of language and recognition. This story was pulled directly from my own mother's experience with my grandmother, who'd passed away a few years before after a long slow decline.
I read the story aloud in class. "That's sweet," Pam said after I'd finished. "Now make it cruel."
Make it cruel. This is the genius sting of Pam Painter's teaching in three little words. (Janet Burroway has similar advice: "Only trouble is interesting.") Pam was the best writing teacher I've had, and I've had more than a few. Pam killed your darlings. She had no patience for those who didn't do the work, or who didn't invest their all into their writing. She required her students to memorize and recite good writing, however we might define it, so that we'd learn to attend and respect the language. (I memorized the last paragraphs of John Cheever's "Farewell, My Brother" and the opening of Quentin's section of The Sound and The Fury.) Once, Pam made a student delete a Word document from his laptop computer so the he'd have to rewrite -- not just revise -- the short work of half-assedness he'd just shared with the class.
Fellow grad students at Emerson feared Pam Painter, and with good reason. If you took Pam's class, you had to have the confidence enough to know you could do the work, and lots of it. Years later, I was invited into Pam's writing group. Another member mentioned having spent the previous day meditating in praise of Pam's great mentorship. "Well," Pam said, "you should have been writing."
So...I rewrote the story, changing the point of view character and clicking into "Auld Lang Syne" as lodestone for memory, cutting away explanation for inference, hanging everything on this notion of cruelty. Probably I'd been listening to a lot of Nick Lowe.
We were asked to bring stamped envelopes to class along with our final drafts, all of us sending off our manuscripts to Florida State University's Sundog: The Southeast Review. I'd sent out stories before, and I'd slowly been wall-papering my Charlestown apartment's bathroom with rejection slips: The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Kenyon, Agni, Antioch, Cream City. So far, I'd been published only in Drake University's student literary magazine (1989) and in a short-lived Marxist newspaper in Chicago (1991). An unpublished runner-up in Milwaukee's Shepherd Express 1992 short story contest.
You learned to accept rejection, and you came to relish those notices that came on full-sized paper or with a human touch -- a signature, a few words of encouragement. "This came close!" someone had written (by hand! blue ink!) on a form that came back to me from Story Magazine.
You've heard writers compare their works with children -- you raise them from nothing into near-adulthood, send them out in the work and hope they do well, etc. Not in my experience. For me, submitted stories were like the mash notes I passed to crushes from the 7th grade through way too late into high school: awkward and needly, both full of and unsure of themselves, bombastic but fragile. Do you like me? If so, check here. So much pressure on 22¢ postage.
So off went the latest and last version of the story, its title changed from "Adeste Fideles" to "The Custodian," motoring to Florida under the protection of a security envelope and an Elvis stamp.
Next: A few phone calls