In 1984, I returned to college. I already had a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology but wanted to deepen my education in literature so I was exploring getting a second Master’s in Comparative Literature. I took a class in writing nonfiction which was taught by a professor who normally taught Chaucer. She explained to us that her teaching method was based on imitation of the masters – just as Chaucer had done during his time – and the masters we were going to imitate were popular writers such as Erma Bombeck, Blackie Sherrod (a well-known Texas sportswriter), the Reverend Jesse Jackson and a half dozen others. Each week, she gave us an article by one of these writers to read and instructed us to use it as a blueprint for our own article. We were to pick a new topic but use the structure and voice of the original writer.
I can’t recall who we imitated first but I do remember feeling so unsure of my piece that I wrote a lengthy apology for its inadequacy to the teacher when I submitted it. I felt quite sure that I had misunderstood the assignment, a fear that became even more pronounced when she began reading from the stack of essays during the next class period. As she read, I sank lower and lower in my seat. I had never heard such beautiful lyric writing and knew that mine was bare-boned and plain in comparison. I felt mortified at the potential for public humiliation.
She read piece after beautiful piece and critiqued them as she went along. With each paper she picked up, I waited with growing dread for mine. At the break, I contemplated making a run for it. Mine was in that final pile and since it was clear I had misunderstood what to do, maybe it was better to quietly gather my books and head straight out the door. Nevertheless, I forced myself to return to my seat. I was not a baby, after all, and I could always drop the class immediately afterward and never face these people again. Finally, there was one lone essay left on the table in front of my professor – mine. My heart pounded in my chest, my mouth went dry. I knew beyond doubt that my piece did not measure up to what I had heard all morning. I steeled myself for the coming onslaught of criticism and prayed for divine help not to cry.
My professor cleared her throat as she picked up my essay. “Everyone here has written something that clearly demonstrates that you know how to write. You have added descriptive phrases and used symbolism and metaphors and other literary elements that add to the depth of your pieces. However, this essay,” she raised mine up and shook it in the air, “is the only one that is so close in style to the original writer that I would defy you to discern the difference between that writer and the student who wrote it. Listen and learn.” She then read my essay out loud.
Dumbstruck, my face grew hot from embarrassment. Could it be true? Had I written an essay that could be mistaken for one by a professional writer? As my professor beamed at me from across the table, I began to realize that perhaps I had.
My whole life shifted in that moment. I suddenly understood that the dream I secretly nursed of becoming a writer was something that was possible. That experience gave me hope, which has fueled my life since that day. While I have not yet established myself as a household name in writing, I have nonetheless added layer upon layer of wonderful experiences to my life due to my love affair with the written word. I have made countless writing friends, worked with hundreds of writing students and spent thousands of hours engaged in an activity that feeds my soul. None of this would have happened if I had slunk out of that conference room and fled out of fear. I am deeply grateful that my timidity (and perhaps the grace of God) kept me riveted to my chair.