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Catch a Phrase and You're Sittin' on Top of the World

By Madora McKenzie Kibbe / January 29, 1997



I caught a wave last fall and unexpectedly surfed into a writing class at a local college. The course was called "Reader/Writer" and met once a week from September to December. The course was for grown-ups but not for credit, which meant we could all relax, more or less, about making the grade.

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There were eight of us - five women and three men, including the teacher. We were a taut, intense group with a wide variety of life experience. We liked each other immediately.

Our secondary goal was to read and discuss as much great literature as possible: Austen's "Emma," Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina," Dickens's "David Copperfield." It was a highly idiosyncratic curriculum, put together by our enthusiastic teacher whose basic theory was that if you want to learn about really good fiction writing, the 19th century is the place to be.

Our primary goal was to write, early and often and as well as we could. Most of us were working on "something." Along the way we got optional assignments to nudge, needle, and encourage us. It was a grueling task, the writing and rewriting all week long, followed by the reading aloud of our precious prose (one hopes not too precious) to our peers. We loved it more than anything else we were otherwise occupied with. We put writing sort of on a par with breathing.

I'D never taken a writing class before. OK, I lie. I mean, I took the ones you couldn't get out of in grade school, high school, and college. I'd spent one summer eons ago at a writer's conference, which only convinced me that novelists were a breed apart.

Having been raised by a writer whose unspoken motto was "Just do it," I had shunned academics in favor of deadlines. Halfway through college a very nice newspaper took me under its wing, gave me a job, and made a writer out of me.

Well, sort of.

Two decades later, having survived a six-year, self-imposed sabbatical from writing (during which I did a lot of diaper changing and related activities), I am far more aware of what I don't know than what I do know.

When I was younger and hadn't done very much with my life, I was sure I could do anything. Now that I've accomplished a few minor miracles and major goals, I'm not sure how I did any of it. Mirrors, I suspect, had something to do with it. Lots of fast talk, too. None of which is ultimately very satisfying. Because ultimately we need to acknowledge and feed the need to learn something. And to do more than "just do it," but to do it well.

This was the wave that carried me into that small classroom last fall. I suspect it was the same wave that brought my other classmates to that shore. And for two hours a week, life was a beach and the eight of us soaked up rays of inspiration and perspiration and sheer endurance that make up the craft of writing.

We were brutally honest with each other about what didn't work in our writing. We were wonderfully effusive about what did work.

We were, most of all, kind to each other. No one had an ax to grind, a knife to plunge. We were unarmed, not dangerous. It was a safe place to come. Outside was the world of rejection letters, not enough time, and rent to pay. Inside it was just us guys and the literary masters - and a teacher whose love of reading and writing was so palpable it made believers of us all. It made me believe I could tell the truth while making up a story; that fiction was, in essence, fact.

So now that I'm one of the newly converted, I say to all of you who love word-work and wordplay, get thee to a writing class. No, really. Take that pottery course next year. Find a group that's united by a common bond - the love of the task. Accept no substitutes. Just do it, and I suspect you'll find you do it pretty well.

You'll find that you've run out of excuses, that the dog didn't eat your homework, and that someone's got to fill that empty page and it might as well be you. You'll wipe out more than a few times, but sooner or later you'll catch a wave and be sitting on top of the world.

My class is on winter break. We start again next month. I can hardly wait. This time I may even read Proust.