words :: Feet Banks
My first best writing teacher might not have even been a teacher at all.
This is back in 1999, at the end of my first year at the University of Victoria– the final day of the final semester of Writing 101. Having survived Fiction, Drama and Creative-Non Fiction, I had six weeks of Poetry to close things out.
Poetry…shit. I knew nothing about it and it still seemed like an obvious hard way to keep the rent paid. The real problem, though, was that coming from a snowy mountain town like Whistler, I had never experience spring at sea level before. Poetry class had nothing on T-shirt weather in February and university girls in summer dresses floating by on the warm pacific breeze. Plus, I’d spent all my textbook money on weed.
We had to write three poems in six weeks. I wrote a not-that-clever one about my own shit called “A Log of Life” (the double entendre was about as poetic as I got in those days) and I recall the heartfelt epiphany was something like “Sesame seeds don’t digest.”
A solid C- for that one. The other two poems were even worse and I knew it. I missed a lot of poetry classes, instead I’d spend Monday-Wednesday-Friday afternoons playing hacky sack by the fountain in my best brown corduroy overalls and waiting for Jessica H.
Jessica H was in my poetry class. She had big blue eyes and big blond hair and her summer dresses seemed the most radiant of any. Sometimes she’d accessorize with worn brown cowboy boots, and once i even saw her carrying a guitar. On a sunny afternoon in April, Jessica H could stop time.
She even lent me her poetry textbooks before the exam—I had decided the wise decision was to buy weed rather than the poetry text book but since Jessica H was not the sort to cram the last hour before a test it worked out for both of us. There I sat, listening to the fountain, book in hand for the first time, hammering through the poems and reading the ones with the most intriguing titles (Death of a Ball-Turret Gunner!!). I managed to skim through four poems then just held the book open for half an hour watching the wind sweep Jessica’s dress hem one direction and her golden hair the other. That looked like poetry to me.
The nerves began as Jess and I walked towards the Fine Arts building together—just a little ball of doubt kicking around inside my head, whispering that I may have fucked this up. I needed a B in poetry to make it through to second year Writing. Could I get a B?
The exam, everyone knew, would contain three poems to analyze and one write-your-own. I held the door open for Jessica H and somehow felt that walking into the room with the most beautiful girl in the class would somehow make everything all right. Then I saw the chalkboard, and everything was.
The Prof of the Poetry segment of Writing 101 that year was Patrick Lane, a brilliant poet (I would later learn). He was nowhere to be seen as we entered the exam but written on the chalkboard behind his standard-issue metal desk was the best piece of writing instruction I received that year:
“If you can’t bullshit your way through a writing exam, you probably shouldn’t be here.”
There were thirty-four kids already seated, it could have been anyone wrote that, but after a minute of silence Mr. Lane arrived. He didn’t acknowledge the chalkboard and made a comment about what a lovely spring we had all enjoyed.
“Lovely.” He sounded cool even saying a word I’d maybe only ever heard my grandmother use. Then he passed out some photocopied pages and it was time.
By the miracle of strong titles, the test contained two of the poems I had read less than an hour before and whatever I pulled out of my ass it must have been good enough because that was 1996 and here I am still banging away on the keys—I passed Writing 101.
You can learn technique, you can hone talent, you can get lucky, and you can sometimes even willpower success. But if you truly want to make a living as a writer there are going to be times when you need to fill and empty page with whatever sticks. In those anxious moments, all you can do then is trust in what you got inside and find a way to shit gold. (And if you can’t shit gold yet, get to work polishing whatever turds you do shit out. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.)
Back in that final exam, I actually finished the test way before Jessica H, but I sat and waited until she got up to hand in her paper. It was the last day of school and while I hated to see Jess go, I sure wasn’t about to miss watching her leave.
She ended up with a career as a country music singer, writing her own stuff. I wrote a movie column about movies I haven’t seen and found a way to learn how to edit a magazine by jumping in and making mistakes.
And if you ever need, Randall Jarrell’s “Death of a Ball Turret Gunner” is a good poem to throw down if the conversation at the cocktail party suddenly gets all high-falutin’. Just saying…
This is a true story, and an old one, which made sourcing images difficult. Thanks to FrozenChipmunk for the use of that chalkboard image (image search said it was “free to share and use commercially” and i hope that’s the case because good luck finding a school-size chalkboard anywhere these days.) I originally published this as a blog for the Whistler Writers Festival where i sometimes moderate author panels and readings while enjoying some pretty kickass sandwiches and cookies. I’m no longer in touch with Jessica H so i can’t say what her favourite type of pie is, but i bet it’s fucking delicious.
Also, someone made this video to match Randall Jarrell’s “Death of a Ball Turret Gunner” and it captures the mood quite nicely.