A Valentine from the Teacher

If you’ve recently accompanied a child or grandchild to the store to look for Valentine’s Day cards, you’ll have noticed plenty of choices for cards to send their friends, and even a great many options for cards to give their teachers. But, at least in my neighborhood, there were no Hallmark-type greetings for teachers to send their students. Which is fine, because I really want to write my own. And here it is:

To every student I ever told to put their novel in the drawer and start all over; to every new writer I asked to scrap a character, a scene, a metaphor; to every one who wrote me for advice and to whom I replied, however gently, Kill your darling, THANK YOU. Thank you for your grace under fire, your courage, your resilience, your can do/won’t surrender attitude; for teaching me so much about starting over unafraid. On this day, when we remember the people we’re thrilled and deeply grateful to have in our lives, I remember you. Image

Why now? Yesterday has a lot to do with it. Yesterday, I shared my latest draft with my writers’ group. I was more than a little excited about this manuscript, a novel whose opening some students and colleagues heard in a reading at VCFA. It’s a book about the young woman who danced John the Baptist to death. Working title? The Gospel of Salomé. But the story took an interesting turn after those early chapters—it acquired a second narrative voice, that of John’s most famous follower, Jesus Christ. The idea sprang, not from free writes or from any plot imperative, but from the headings in my Scrivener outline. Since I’d grouped the early chapters together under a section heading, “The Good Daughter,” it felt intriguing to connect the next (unwritten) chapters with the title, “The Good Son.” And who would this Good Son be? Who else?

Wow! How risky is that! And scary! And BIG! Flush with my own daring and feverish from leaping off one of the biggest writing cliffs I’ve ever contemplated, I wrote like crazy. I don’t eat breakfast, anyway, but I started skipping lunch, too. I wrote around the clock, skipping niceties like showers, walks, and answering the phone. Which means that, yesterday, when I finally turned my draft into the group, I had a great deal invested in it. But I wasn’t really worried. The whole risky concept was sure, I thought, to bowl them over. Besides, I knew the language was incantatory, even hypnotic at points, and I was, frankly, looking forward to hearing this reflected in their comments.

It wasn’t. Now everyone in our group is a published author, so we can all take an ego punch. (You can’t be published multiple times without having been rejected multiple times.) Still, I was stunned when my dear and precious readers, instead of praising my Jesus’ slightly ADD but enchantment-laced voice, asked me why I needed Him at all! They didn’t mean this in a religious sense, mind you. They were asking from a purely literary, craft-oriented perspective—why had I developed this second view point? What did it add to the story? How did it grow my central character, Salomé? How was it worth the risks, historical, motivational, and structural? Why not tell the story without it?

And this is where my students come in. You see, without the precedent they’ve set, I don’t think I could have possibly taken this in stride. But their example has been lodged in my psyche each time I ask a new writer similar tough questions, each time he or she rolls up their sleeves and tries whatever I propose. Sure, there is sometimes gnashing of teeth, not to mention moaning at the bar; but almost always my students are willing to put aside their disappointment, their agendas, even their ideas about why they write. And just go for it.

So I will, too, Sweethearts. I will, too.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “A Valentine from the Teacher

  1. Just today, I started work on revamping a novel I wrote at VCFA. I pulled out a letter from Sarah Ellis suggesting I kill a darling of a character. Yep, gotta do it.

    Jesus can take it! (Although the idea of including Jesus’ voice sounds intriguing to me, and I wonder how much it’ has been done?)

    • louisehawes

      I know, Barbara! The challenge of using that voice intrigued me, too! But when the group asked me those questions, I knew it was the challenge fascination and not the story that was behind my change in direction! And yes, again: those old letters can really help. I still have some from my long, long, long ago days as a student at VCFA!! Good luck to both of us with our revamps 🙂

  2. Lovely essay, Louise. The Jesus idea does sound intriguing, though.
    Thank you.

    • louisehawes

      It WAS intriguing, John. And I’m afraid I was enjoying “playing God” more than I was serving the story. Still, as most of us know, nothing is really lost, and the energy and voice I spent so much time may play a role somehow in the new version?

  3. I *Heart* you, Louise! (Alas, I don’t have a heart icon on my computer.) Thanks for this heartening post and for your example of grace and generosity. As to the chapters you’ve done … maybe Jesus wants his own story! Okay, he does have the New Testament 🙂 but maybe he’d like to share what it was like to be an adolescent…. It all does sound most intriguing.

  4. louisehawes

    Thanks, Mary. And yes, that’s just where I went — to the sensitive, drenched with love adolescent. I admit, I had a wonderful time, and maybe that’s enough. The process itself was a trance-like joy; who needs a book, too? 🙂

  5. Carol

    I love the passion you feel for your craft–writing like crazy and not eating or showering or exercising. Even if your Jesus voice was shot down, you must have felt a terrific rush while you were following it. Your valentine for your students was right on. Keep it up!

    • louisehawes

      Your response is right on target, Carol. The no shower/ no meals routine? That’s always an indication I’m caught up in something, in crazy love with a scene, a moment, a voice. It is, indeed, a rush and not something I regret. It’s the let-down after, the reality of others not sharing my single-minded enthusiasm, that often feels less than lovely 🙂

  6. This is great, Louise. A wonderful reminder that although I’m enamored with many darlings in my current WIP, I’ve yet to show this manuscript to anyone at all. It’s just not ready. And once it is ready, will I be ready for the feedback? You have prepared me… again. Thank you!

    • louisehawes

      Oh, Anne, I’m so glad you’re already absorbed in a new story! And many darlings are good — chances are, you won’t have to murder them all!

  7. Helen Kemp Zax

    I’m rolling up those sleeves, again, right now, Louise. Thanks for the heartfelt encouragement.

  8. Fabulous! I’m about to teach a writing workshop in Nairobi and I’m incredibly excited and nervous. I’ve read sixteen novel-length manuscripts from Kenyan writers and there is such good material in them and such a desire to reach out to a young adult audience. I want so much to be able give these young writers, most of them university students, I’ve been led to believe, the inspiration to go on and just do it, but also to make them brave enough to just do it and then do it again and… well, you know what I’m saying. This is the single biggest challenge we all must face as writers, at whatever stage we are in our profession. Giving, giving, giving — and then letting go, letting go, letting go…

    • louisehawes

      Tim, I’m SO excited about your trip! I know you’ll give those sixteen lucky students a precious experience– the chance to grow as writers. And Nairobe! I’m counting on your posting a huge, delicious chunk of your Kenyan Journal right here as soon as you can!

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