My sophomore year of college, I followed a crowd of hundreds of my fellow students to the board where class lists were posted, and found myself lucky enough to have a conference course with one of the best poets on our campus. I half-walked, half-skipped back to my dorm room, smiling at no one in the street-lamped night and unable to believe my good fortune. Then I went into my dorm room, closed the door, and began to cry a very loud, very ugly cry.
The problem was that this professor was not just one of the best poets on campus — he was also one of the harshest critics. I’d learned about him the previous year through rumors that rose and swirled and fell over the snow globe that campus became in the winter.
“He’s terrible,” Mirabelle said as she took a jittery drag from an unfiltered Parliament. “Terrible. He literally lives to make people cry. Like, literally. Our tears are his sustenance.”
“I heard he told Johnathan to get out of his office and not come back until he’d developed talent or shame,” Annabelle said.
“He threatened to kill Gabe’s hamster,” Jacqueline said, and Jocelyn nodded in teary agreement, unable to speak herself. I didn’t even have a hamster, and I was terrified.
Here are the three most memorable moments from my conference course:
- I started reading a poem about what my housemates and I did on Friday nights. I got three lines in. “Stop,” he said. “Just stop.” I stopped. He looked at me and I looked at him. He held out his hand for the poem. I gave it to him. He slipped it into the trashcan under his desk. “Next,” he said. I cleared my throat and shuffled through that week’s poems until I found one that involved no Friday-night-on-a-college-campus activities. I got all the way through the poem that time. After I
read, he leaned back in his chair and said, “Okay.” We got to the work of revision.
- A few weeks later, I brought in another poem about my housemates and our activities. This time, the subject was a Saturday evening, which I apparently thought was different enough. I started reading. I got a line and a half in. “Stop,” he said. “Just stop.” I stopped. He looked at me and I looked at him. We both started laughing. I handed him the poem and he slipped it into the trashcan under his desk. “One more time,” he said, “and I’m making you put your hand in the piranha’s mouth.” The taxidermic piranha that sat on the fireplace mantle stared down with its bead eyes and tooth-triangled grin.
- I brought in a poem that I’d been writing and re-writing and writing again for the past three years. I didn’t involve my housemates or the mention of a weekend. I read the poem. He looked at me and I looked at him. He held out the trashcan. I ripped the poem in half and threw it away. “Now,” he said, “doesn’t that feel better?” I smiled and nodded and shuffled through the rest of the poems I’d brought for that week. I didn’t speak because it did feel better – it felt like I’d been freed from a trap of my own making.
These moments were important because they should have been terrible. They should have been the kind of moments that belong in a story that ends with the sentence “and that’s why I stopped writing poetry.” The moments are important, and the story is important, because they lead to a very different ending, a very different sentence: “and that’s how I learned to love poetry.”
That’s exactly what these moments did for me: they helped me to love poetry more than I had ever loved it, to develop a new devotion to poetry, a deeper and more important commitment. Through them, I learned that I loved poetry, the art itself, not just whatever I managed to put down on the page. I learned that very little — if anything — that I wrote would be perfect, and I learned to love my own imperfections. I learned that I would make mistakes, and a lot of them. I learned that this was okay. More than okay – I learned that mistakes made me human, made my poetry human, and I learned that mistakes are the way that I learned. I learned that recognizing my mistakes was most of the road towards recognizing – and writing – good poems, and I learned that if I ripped a poem in half and threw it away, I’d still live. More importantly, my poetry would still live, and it would live more strongly, more beautifully, more honestly.
My professor was right: I did feel better after I recognized what worked and what didn’t work. I felt better when I was able to move on and away from the labyrinth of trying to make something work that just wasn’t going to work. I learned to make my way out of that labyrinth much earlier in my writing process, and I learned that this would save myself from a lot of frustration — and it would save my poems, too.
For years, I thought criticism was the Minotaur, raging and waiting in the middle of the labyrinth so it could destroy me. In my conference course, I learned that I was the greatest danger to myself and to my writing. If I listened only to praise and not to criticism, I’d keep turning the same corners, circling and circling my words and myself into destruction. Criticism wasn’t an evil bull-beast: it was the way out.
We all, I think, come to creative writing workshops for praise. I know I did. Let’s face it: writing isn’t easy, and it’s easy to look only for validation. We all want to be told that what we’re feeling and thinking is normal – or better, interesting – better still, extraordinary. We all want to be recognized, to feel seen. I’d like to argue, though, that praise is only the half of it. When a fellow writer critiques my work, I, of course, like to hear the good parts. But if I only hear good parts, I feel dissatisfied, disappointed. I want more, and what I want is to hear how I can do better, write better, how I can better communicate the normal-or-better-interesting-or-better-still-extraordinary things I think and feel and write. After all, a critique says that someone believes in you and what you’re saying, and your ability to say it, enough to want to help you say it better – and there’s no greater praise than that. By the end of my conference course, I was eager for criticism, even if it meant putting my hand in the mouth of a taxidermic piranha. I was eager to revise and revise again, to tear apart the small buildings of words I’d built on the page and re-build them, to make them better and stronger and, hopefully, just a tiny bit extraordinary.
And that’s how I learned to love poetry.