I attended The Richard Stockton College of NJ for my Literature degree. My literature department was an awesome group of individuals who are still spreading their awesomeness to this day. I was also lucky enough to study creative writing under Stephen Dunn, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. I took a total of 3 classes with him before he retired from teaching full time the year after I graduated. I will always remember those classes. They crafted the building blocks of my writing career.
Stephen was a tough teacher in the sense that he was not one to give praise lightly. If your writing was awful, he wasn’t afraid to tell you so. Sometimes gently. Sometimes not so gently. A friend of mine (who is now a wonderful stand-up comic in Chicago) submitted a short story, to which Stephen said, “Keep the first line and throw out the rest.” Ouch. I had my fair share of callouts for clumsy writing, as we all do during those formative years (wait, aren’t they all formative?). But, it was all worth it to get work back and see a “Nice” or “Really like this” written in the margins. I strove for comments like that and doing so pushed me to be a better writer.
I found my writing strength while studying with Stephen. If there was one thing that always caught his attention, it was my dialogue. There was something natural and honest about it. You could hear the characters speaking that way. I still cling to that strength in my writing today. If I’m having difficulty, I turn to dialogue. Sometimes the natural progression of the story may stall, but having the characters talk it out will move it along. It can lead to a first draft with many conversation-heavy chapters, but it’s often easier to go back and edit.
I also had to take a semester of poetry writing for my creative writing track. While I don’t quite remember his overall assessment of my ability in that form, I seem to remember sharing a laugh at how prolific I was. I approached poetry with the “why write 1 good poem, when you can write 20 mediocre ones” mentality. In one semester, I probably produced close to 60 pieces of poetry when the class requirement was 15-20. It was fun, but we both knew that poetry wasn’t quite my thing.
Writing fiction wasn’t much different. For the final paper, I was always working on part of a novel. When others were submitting 10-15 page short stories, I was submitting the first 40 pages of a novel. I rarely read my end-of-year work aloud in class (due to size) and when it was time to review my work, I was the guy who always got the death stare from my classmates. “Like I didn’t have enough reading to do this weekend!” I guess it was a glimpse into the future. I was destined for the long form. The first 40 pages of the first draft of my novel, Multiples of Six, were written for his class. I threw out about 30 of those pages after I realized they were all backstory. Live and learn!
Lastly, I don’t know if he does public speaking anymore, but listening to Stephen read was often the highlight of the class. He could turn any line of words into something magical. If you ever have the chance to attend a poetry reading of his, I highly recommend it. Definitely a magician with words both written and spoken and I’m glad to have been able to share some time learning the craft from him.
Do/Did you have a writing mentor? Let us know in the comments and thanks for stopping by.