Contemporary American Writers was a core course for the people with a fiction or poetry emphasis. The core course for nonfiction writers was similar in purpose, to prepare you to read like a writer, to look for examples of techniques in good literature, to focus on how you can use literary techniques in your own writing, and to learn how to analyze other people’s writing.
When I asked a young man outside the building to move so I could confirm the building was Barton Hall where my first class was supposed to meet, I had no idea that he was the teacher until he followed me into the classroom. A little nervous, I slid into one of the desks that formed a circle, probably to make us focus on what everyone said during our discussions.
I’d seen this ritualistic circling of the clan in workshops before. I just never understood exactly why everyone always thought it was so important. The set-up always reminded me of those scenes of prehistoric times in the Natural History Museum in Chicago. I soon stopped imagining the students in animal skins and snarled hair when our teacher asked us to write about why we were in the program. My answers were easy for that question, I wanted to become a better writer and speed up my progress. I also wrote something about wanting to be a part of a writers’ community. Someone at Iowa had told me how important that could be.
Everyone in the class seemed ill at ease, except for one poet who had taken several other classes before this one. I wondered how she’d managed to get around the rules that said we had to take this as one of our first classes. My advisor had also said that I should take both of the core classes together, that’s how I ended up taking one class in Baltimore and one in Washington, D.C. My program offered writing classes in both locations.
Our teacher did most of the talking that first session, even though he tried to encourage us to participate. After our introductions, we started with a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Artist of the Beautiful:” which our teacher had emailed us before the first class. Most of us were drawing blanks even he asked us what “beautiful” was. Looking back, it’s easy to say that he was trying to get us to talk about being an artist, about how we might define our aesthetic.
The people in this class were young for the most part. My crow’s feet and gray hairs marked me as an intruder. The other students stared at me for a while until the teacher started questioning them about the story. His look was penetrating, looking for clues that we understood what he was saying. My own survival mechanism of blurting out whatever came to mind worked well enough since nobody else was doing that well either. But I had a new worry now. I was afraid that I wouldn’t catch on to what he was saying quickly enough and to crown it all, he said not to worry about grades. Oh, yeah, like I could ever not worry about getting kicked out of the program.