Harry Crews was a famous southern writer–if he was alive now, he would be a toxic masculinity cliche– but in 1980, to his students at the University of Florida, he was the writer we aspired to be, if not the drunk or fashion icon (how you can sport a mullet and a mohawk at the same time I’m not sure but he did).
I took his class as a freshman, wearing my blue suede Vans and riding my fat-tired bike to theater classes, the photography lab, and to Harry’s short story class, buoyant with the lofty vague idea of devoting myself to the Creative Life.
Harry was my first writing teacher after Mrs. Ray in high school who determined the course of my life by saying over her shoulder as we walked to her office one Thursday in November, “You’re a good writer, maybe you should be one.” Thanks, Mrs. Ray (at least on the good days.)
But if Mrs. Ray was a fan, Mr. Crews was not. It was my turn one evening to get feedback from him–he gave you your notes in class in front of everybody (are you sweating now?)–and I can still feel myself trying not to pant with shame as he told me (did I mention in front of the whole class?) that I didn’t give enough of a shit and it showed in my story. That I had phoned my work in.
I sat my Southern good girl smile brittle and about to crack, nodding rapidly during his critique until his attention passed to the next student.
Let me be clear before I say what I’m about to say: this is not a story of how cruelty makes you a better writer. Harry’s comments are one of the many reasons I’m the kind of writing teacher and coach I am (honest but very loving).
And (because we humans can hold contradictions at the same time) I’m thankful to Mr. Crews for his feedback. Because he was right. I did phone my story in.
I had no idea at 17 that writing meant turning your heart and mind inside out to reveal something honest or useful or meaningful. That it is never enough to simply be clever or complete the assignment.
And while shaming is never an acceptable way to teach, I’m still grateful Harry taught me this: We have to give a crap about what we write.
In this noisy world filled with people like me vying for your sacred attention, the least we writers and creators can do is care.
Shipping and getting over perfectionism is vital but so is having something to say that matters, that you stand behind.
Now, more than ever.