Dispatches | February 25, 2013

Two weeks ago, I received an email from a student who was in my Intro to Fiction Writing class last semester. This student is currently enrolled in an Intermediate Fiction Writing class (Mizzou has three levels for undergraduates: Intro, Intermediate, and Advanced) and he gave me a brief update on how the semester was going. He wrote that I taught him all the basics that he needed to focus on more complex elements in his work, and that he felt more prepared to write better stories this semester. He wanted to let me know that he appreciated what I did, that my teaching mattered. He wanted to say thanks.

This is one of the best things a teacher will ever hear.

The goal for my Intro to Fiction Writing class was simple and one that I stated the first class: keep writing. That’s it. Oh, sure, there are other things—understand the basics of point of view, how to create vivid characters, plot arc, an appreciation for language, etc.—but in the end, really, my hope was that all my students would keep writing. I won’t know, of course, for a long time, if ever, I succeeded in that goal. But the first time I ever considered writing fiction as a Thing To Do was in a college classroom, and I have long hoped to get my students to experience the same thing.

So, thinking about all this, I’m not sure I adequately expressed my gratitude to my former student when I wrote him back. I’m terrible at taking compliments, a deficiency I’ve been working really hard on improving since my book came out. Recently, I discovered a guy I had been playing basketball with for years is a journalist and sports broadcaster here in Columbia on ABC 17. When I told him this, he smiled genuinely and said “Thanks for watching.” I’m aware there is nothing especially inventive there yet I’ve heard those words in my head for days—Thanks for watching!—because it was so gracious and so simple and so true and, man, why can’t I think of something like that to say?

As the managing editor, I only get the chance to formally teach two classes per year, one in the fall (fiction writing) and one in the spring (Internship in Publishing). I have no complaints about my job, but I do miss teaching fiction writing this semester: the workshop environment, the one-on-one discussions with students about their fiction, and reading their manuscripts, particularly the moments when they write a sentence or paragraph or scene of vivid, memorable drama.

Along with stumbling and bumbling toward a better way of expressing thanks and gratitude, I’ve also wanted to let my writing professors know they mattered. I saw Lee Abbott in St. Louis a few years ago, and probably wrote a full paragraph on the title page of my book before I mailed it to him. I introduced Melanie Rae Thon when she visited Mizzou last year, mostly just speaking off the top of my dome about what her class and her books and her encouragement meant. Proximity certainly helps, so I’ve been able to see Mary Troy and John Dalton in person over the last few years. And I really am deeply appreciative of every reader and every student I’ve taught (okay, most: I have taught a few knuckleheads).

It might sound a little corny, but hey, it’s not my fault our world distrusts sincerity. With a batch of new students getting comfortable in the internship, with AWP coming up (next week!), and everything else, the reasons I thank people and the reasons I struggle to accept thanks have been on my mind. I hope to keep getting better at it, and I know that I’ll have many more people to thank in the future.

Next week’s conference tends to be overwhelming and chaotic, and you’ll hear many people refer to it as a schmoozefest (and other terms that are best left unwritten in this post). If you’re going, chances are you’re going to run into someone you should thank: a professor, an editor, a publisher, an old classmate. They all matter. And in the four days madness of AWP, find the time to be gracious and thankful to those people in your writing life that have shaped you, especially those who did so in ways that, perhaps, you didn’t fully appreciate five, ten, or however many years ago it’s been since you last saw ’em. I know I will. Even if I stumble and bumble the words, I hope the person I’m thanking will know that I mean it.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye