Wednesday, October 2, 2013

“I’m Too Stupid!”

Zora Neale Hurston

by John B. Rosenman

I’m a teacher. Have been for a long time. It’s not as important to me as my writing, but it’s pretty close, largely because it involves writing. Now, I’m not talking about those student essays, term papers, and tests which I have to mark up and grade. To tell the truth, I’m sick and tired of them. After forty years, you get weary of wading through garbled research papers without a thesis or sixty tests in which students all answer the same questions in pretty much the same way.

No, besides teaching itself, which can be downright fun and exhilarating, what makes my job most fulfilling are the courses I’ve taught in creative writing. I’ve been fortunate enough to teach them at two institutions of so-called higher learning. At Norfolk State University in Virginia, where I teach now, I’ve had the opportunity to create and teach my own course in writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, which can stretch to include Horror and the Outright Bizarre. Needless to say, it can be a blast to expose young minds to brave, strange, even demented new worlds, to make them see that Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Faulkner aren’t the only ones who have written classics.

Above all, I’ve had the opportunity to awaken their imaginations and help them explore and develop their talent. How good can they be? Is that pasty-faced kid in the corner a future Stephen King, Poppy Z. Brite, or Ray Bradbury? You never know for sure.

Which brings me to my point: I’d like to tell you about a student I once had. This was about thirty years ago at a small black Southern college. I had expressed a desire to teach Creative Writing, a course, which to my knowledge, had been in the curriculum for years but never offered. It was an orphan sired by some idealistic or deranged administrator, then forgotten. I was the first who volunteered to adopt it.

To my surprise, I was assigned the course. And also to my surprise, students actually enrolled, all of them women. As I recall, that made me even happier. The day I walked into my first creative writing class and saw twelve young beautiful women looking back at me, I thought, “By God, I may have chosen the right profession after all!”

Besides being giddy, I don’t remember much about that first class. But I recall well what came after it. One of my students brought a friend up to my desk, hoping to convince her to enroll in the course. The friend differed from the others in being older, perhaps fifty. When I urged her to take the course, she said, “Oh, I can’t do that, Dr. Rosenman. I’m too stupid!”

Now it’s one thing to have low self-esteem and to think you’re stupid, but to proclaim it to a stranger with other people watching is . . . well, memorable. In all the years since then, I’ve wondered, “Who told you that you were stupid, and what made you think that way?” Later I learned that the woman (I’ll call her Carol) made $100 a month as a cleaning woman. It was subsequently increased to $100 a week. Whether Carol had other employment, I can’t say, but at the time it seemed her lack of self-confidence was due largely to being black and poor in the South.

Anyway, Carol came into my class and the first day she turned in a poem. I didn’t read it until the next day. And then I reread and reread and reread it.

It was a sonnet on love, written in iambic pentameter with an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme. In it Carol used a variety of poetic devices such as alliteration, assonance, similes and metaphors.

While the poem itself was not flawless, it was damned close. Perhaps two or three professional poets out of a hundred could have equaled it. Needless to say, it didn’t seem to fit the self-abasement she had displayed on our first meeting. If this was being “stupid,” it was nothing to be ashamed about.

I wish I could tell you that Carol is known today as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, or some other world-renowned African-American writer, but that didn’t happen. Nor did she rise to the top of the class on a wave of creative genius. Truth is, she was an average student and received a “C” in Creative Writing. While that may not seem remarkable to others, it still seems impressive as hell to me. After forty years of teaching, Carol remains the most amazing student I’ve ever taught, the one who continues to have the most profound impact on me. All the brilliant “A” students down through the years fade in comparison despite their gifts.

I like to think we can learn certain things from Carol’s example. First, when it comes to writing, talent may exist in what seems the most unlikely or unpromising of places, so we should never prejudge. A bum or homeless person might delight us, whereas a Nobel Prize winner will leave us cold. Second, a superficial gift does not a writer make. I’ve taught many students over the years who could construct a story with a fair plot and good characterization, but a flash-in-the-pan glitter didn’t make them writers. They might have skills or a knack, but not a calling, and not the desire to practice and practice and practice their craft and develop as writers. For all I know, Carol did become a poet or writer, and a damned good one. But because (mea culpa!) I’ve long since forgotten her name, I wouldn’t know. Then again, perhaps she’s like Emily Dickinson, who consigned most of her superb work to her trunk, and it will remain to someone after her death to discover her.

Last, I’ve tried to learn confidence from Carol or at least develop a tendency not to judge my own writing talent too harshly. And that ain’t easy, folks, since I tend to be negative, self-critical, and full of doubts. Sometimes, when I write a story and I’m slogging through the fourth or fifth revision, it seems to me it all sucks, that everything from my style to my characters to my lack of logic contributes to the worst piece of dreck in the western world. At such times I shout, “I can’t do this. I’M TOO STUPID!”

But then I remind myself there isn’t a simple litmus test for talent, that it’s more complicated than that. Besides, I’m too close to the words and perhaps my story is better than I think. Indeed, it might even be the equivalent of Carol’s brilliant poem. And even if it isn’t, it’s ultimately the writing that counts, isn’t it? Not the quality or critical acclaim. Not even all that potential money.

In the end, this is what Carol taught me most: that we should write primarily because we want to and because we must. We should write because the greatest miracles of all occur within our own minds.*

* Previously published before I retired, but I thought it was worth a blog. :)