Secret Journal of a Creative Writing Professor

AMANDA WROTE ABOUT HER VAGINA AGAIN. Today's lesson is supposed to be about creating a sense of place. I have Shapiro’s adequate textbook open and am about to delight the class with a charming anecdote about that rascal Bill Bryson, who I met once at a book signing. For one of his books. I haven't had a book signing since 1998. The critics loved my novel. I got all sorts of press. It was a great start to my career. Although there was that one troll on Amazon who wrote, "Makes for choppy narration and a story without flow."

A flurry of lemon verbena and kinetic energy, Amanda whirled in late in the middle of my pause to collect my thoughts about Bill. She placed her neatly typed pages right on top of my notes. Then she sat down and fiddled with her bagel. Now she continues to gingerly soothe its burnt edges with bright white cream cheese.

My mouth waters. My stomach growls. I am passing into a reverie. I immediately give the class a writing assignment, so I can feel its full impact.

The title of Amanda's new story is "Open My Petals Warm." The first line reads: “Feel how smooth I have made my flower for you." Last week she brought in a story titled "The Cave of the Innocent," a pastiche of Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" in which all the chained prisoners were her old lovers, including one whose description hauntingly matched our dean's. The week before that, her story was "The Amazing Red Button." In that one, she likened her clitoris to a Borscht Belt comedian. It was not funny.

Her latest piece straddles my lesson plan. The pages smell of lemon verbena.

Last fall, a young lady who wrote poem after poem about her every piece of lingerie she owned. She was prolific. Last spring, a male student wrote a series of detective adventures starring his ardent and mutli-talented priapus (it could also drive). For sure, every semester there is someone like Amanda, who shows off a little for the teacher, as if this class was Flirtation 101 instead of Creative Writing 213. I have a stack of their xeroxed stories in an old briefcase behind my desk. I don't believe it's infidelity if you use a young artist's work as a masturbatory aid. It's a compliment to their art. My wife disagrees. Which is why the briefcase is at the office.

I sure could use a bong hit about now.

And here, officially ending my reverie, walks in Stanley. He plops down in a seat as far away from everyone as possible, picks his nose as if it were the most amazing thing to do in the world. At first I thought he was just a lonely outcast. But my professional diagnosis would be "Potential Shooter." For sure every semester there is always a Stanley, too. He comes in late, surly, often wears an army jacket or jean jacket that has been perfectly distressed. He writes about killing his parents, his roommate, his calculus professor, through buggery, evisceration, gasoline, spoon. If typed, these stories are single-spaced and inevitably come with some mysterious, oily stain on the pages. I don't want to know. But no way I am going to flunk a Stanley. The one time I did I spent months looking behind my back in the parking garage.

I don't save the Stanley stories. I burn them. Then I wash my hands and go hug my wife or pet my dog or drink a shot of Jack Daniels. Or all four at the same time.

I have to go check again, see if I got a new chili pepper.

But then — then there is the student who comes on time, writes well, is disciplined, is smart, is actually remarkably talented. The quirky-but-not-too-quirky type (messy hair but not dreads, sweaty-smelling not patchouli-smelling) who may actually go some place with their writing. I had one once, Doris, who went on to win a Pulitzer. She didn't thank me in her foreword, or her acceptance speech. Or in any interviews she's ever given.

I look around. None of this lot is a Doris. The wunderkinds you don't get every semester. In fact, they are as rare and lovely as comets. But when you do get one, you know right away.

Those students, those genius students — they are the ones I hate most of all.

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