Continuing a post from last week about one of my former college instructors, who’s been heavily criticized for a recent essay of his
I first met Aristides in the fall of my senior year as an undergrad. I was at the start of my third academic program in four years, Non-Fiction Prose Writing, and beginning to feel anxious about graduation in the spring.
A slender man with short brown hair streaked in gray, Aristides wore a tweed jacket and bow tie that first day. He sat at the end of a long rectangular table, eschewing the lectern in the corner of the room. The printed class roster was the only material he brought with him. He read each student’s name from the roster and asked for an introduction; when the last introduction was made, he folded his hands on the table in front of him, smiled behind his moon-shaped glasses, and declared “writing cannot be taught. But it can be learned.”
There were no books to be purchased, which delighted me and spared another shock to my parents’ bank account. He would occasionally come with copies of essays to be read and analyzed during class. He rarely lectured; the lectern remained unused throughout the quarter, standing in the corner ignored like a barren fruit tree. He led discussions, and his direct advice was delivered in a stream of aphorisms. My notebook from those discussions is filled with these statements, each of which I know to be true yet none of which I can prove conclusively:
Two things are boring in writing: a lack of skill, and too much of it.
You have to be fairly aristocratic to write. You have to assume what you’re saying is important, and that other people should care about what you’re saying.
You never finish an essay; you just abandon it.
Style means being yourself, making your originality show. Style isn’t something a writer does, but rather what a writer has.
Each student wrote a half-dozen essays during the three-month quarter. The assigned topic was always broad — describe the neighborhood where you grew up… prove or refute the truth of a popular saying… write an attack — giving each of us the terrible freedom of deciding what was important to us and proving to Aristides that we knew what the hell we were talking about.
After the third week he would start each class by reading from two or three student essays, both to praise and point out flaws. My first few essays were desultory, the writing uninspired and void of insight; my grades were poor and he never read from my work, for which I was grateful. My stomach clenched when he began reading my essay on returning to my childhood neighborhood, and didn’t relax until I realized by the tone of his voice that this was going to be one of his “good” examples. He looked up at me when he finished reading. “Clever,” he announced, then proceeded to the next essay. My confidence improved, as did my grades. The stomach pain I felt when he read my work subsided into nausea.
Our final essay for the course was an open-ended assignment; we were invited to write on whatever topic we chose. By then my anxiety about graduation, a few months away, had grown into full-blown panic. I started and quickly abandoned each of a half-dozen ideas, and faced with a blank page the night before the assignment was due I poured my feelings onto the page. I felt it was solipsistic nonsense, a whine rather than an analysis. I even used the f-word because given the brutal honesty in the rest of the essay a more socially-acceptable term would have been inappropriate. When I abandoned the work a little after midnight I felt the result was C material at best, most likely D; exceeding the minimum page requirement was the only assurance it wouldn’t receive an F. I was embarrassed to turn it in, my only comfort being that my earlier marks would allow me to pass the course.
Aristides walked into that final class, carrying a manilla folder. “I have an essay I want to read in its entirety,” he said at the start, which was a surprise, as he would typically read only a page or two. This wasn’t going to be another “good” or “bad” example; this was going to be Exhibit A of what we should either aspire to or avoid. He opened the manilla folder, took out the top essay, and read the title of my panic-induced drivel.
The stomach clenched harder than it had all quarter. This couldn’t be good. As he read a few students looked over at me and raised their eyebrows, our way of silently asking if we were the author of the work being reviewed. When I nodded in response they looked away, their faces concerned. I thought at the time they agreed with my assessment of the essay; later I would learn they were actually thinking the essay was the product of a mental breakdown.
At least he’s not going to read the f-word, I assured myself. He’ll skip the word, or say something like ‘fudge’ instead.
He read the f-word. With feeling. Lenny Bruce couldn’t have delivered any better.
If there had been a toilet next to me, I would have used it.
He read all the way through to the last line, his voice conveying neither approval or disapproval. The room was silent when he finished; nobody was looking at me now. He then turned the paper over, and took off his glasses.
“I have never,” he said, “been so proud of a student.”
There’s at least one more part to this essay. I know it’s going to wind up way long, but it has to be written.