What I Learned In College Besides My Social Security Number

In my sophomore year of college, I took a class on playwriting. I kept meaning to take a fiction writing class, but it was always cross-scheduled with something required by my theater major. I figured playwriting was the closest I would get and still satisfy my adviser.

The playwriting professor was Dr. Stephen Malin, one of the finest teachers from whom I ever had the privilege to learn. I had already taken theater history from him. Dr. Malin was not satisfied with my writing, regularly giving me C's. It was quite the conflict for me at the time - my writing had always skated me by in other classes. I might not have understood very much about World War I, but my charming prose usually got me higher marks. My writing was my strong point.

But Dr. Malin didn't grade us on what we accomplished. He graded us according to what we were capable of doing. He knew I could write circles around much of the stuff I turned in, and he would not accept the bare minimum.

Naturally, I was nervous about taking his playwriting class.

On the first day, we were supposed to bring something we had written. It didn't have to be a play, just something. I considered bringing some poetry, but the truth was, I knew my poetry sucked. I wanted to impress Dr. Malin.

So I decided to bring the science fiction novella I had written in high school. It was the best thing I'd ever written, I'd poured my heart and soul into it, and I just knew it would impress him.

The day of the first class, I had a nasty cold, but nothing was going to stop me from that class. I showed up with my novella in hand, and when it was my turn, I started to read. I read as quickly as I could, because I could feel my voice giving out. I knew I'd only read the first chapter, but there were all these historical flashbacks.

I was barely a page from the end of the chapter when Dr. Malin said, "Okay, I'm going to stop you there."

"Wait," I replied. "We're just getting to the good part."

He aimed a finger at me. "That, right there," he said. "That's what's wrong with it."

I was floored, and barely heard the rest of the lecture. I had never thought of it that way. It changed everything about my writing in one sentence. I had been rushing because of my voice, but I realized I was also rushing because the opening of the book was a lot of backstory and scene-setting and I wanted to get to the touching, horrible moment at the end of the first chapter. I wanted to get to the good stuff.

Your story STARTS with the good stuff. You have only moments to get their attention if you are reading aloud, a page or two at most if they are scanning you in a bookstore aisle, no more than a few sentences if you're on an editor's desk. (They have the attention spans of gypsy moths, I swear.)

The other professor who had the biggest impact on me was a poet named Victor Depta. Once again I was trying to take a fiction writing class, and since the schedule didn't work, I signed up for poetry workshop instead. There were only two problems, and the smaller one was that I had never written a line of poetry in my life.

The other was that Depta had a reputation - real or imaginary, I never knew - for being extremely hard on younger students. He preferred only upperclassmen and graduate students to take his workshops, believing that younger students lacked the maturity to take the class.

I was still in high school.

Yeah, I was a nerd. I was taking college classes at night because I was desperately bored at my high school and wanted to get a jump start on my general education credits. So I carefully hid my high-school status from Dr. Depta.

At the very first workshop, he told us that we would have to write two poems a week for the semester. I almost quit right there. But then he said something that has stuck with me ever since.

"There are no ideas but in things," he said. Fortunately, he went on to explain that rather esoteric statement. He said poetry often fails in its over-reliance on emotional language instead of exploring the metaphors and descriptors that truly make the reader feel. Poetry is the language of the senses, he said - using touch, taste, smell, sound and sight, you make them see, make them feel. Then you have created poetry.

Instead of saying "my sadness fills my heart," a true poet should write of anything but the emotion. To write of an endless, empty field, or the sea after a storm, or the color of blood on the snow. Describe something that makes the reader feel. The shorthand is show, don't tell.

There are no ideas but in things, and for a semester I worked my tail off creating images that would reach my classmates and make them feel something. Sometimes my poems tended toward prose, falling into my habit of telling stories. But by the end of the semester, I had scratched the proverbial surface of powerful storytelling, using words and description instead of the rote "he said she said they died" method I had used.

To this day, I owe Dr. Depta a huge debt. He helped form my writing style, and still I struggle with it daily. I still fall into rote recitation. I still lack the gift of poetry. But I am grateful - and I realized it then, even when I sent him my high school graduation announcement. (I am a stinker, yes.)

From Dr. Malin, I learned that if I cannot capture my own imagination within a few pages, my own emotions, excitement and sadness and fascination, then I have failed. From Dr. Depta, I learned that simply narrating action and dialogue is not enough. I should not summarize my story; I need to create my world out of words.

This is a long way of saying that the 1303 words I wrote tonight utterly suck, and will be completely rewritten before I let anyone see them. And what's worse, I knew it sucked as I wrote it. Each word was like pulling teeth, every sentence restarted three times. Nothing seemed right, nothing worked. I knew it sucked when I wrote it.

Edison is thought to have said that he did not fail 200 times in his most famous endeavor, but he found 200 ways how not to make a lightbulb. I have found at least 200 ways how not to write a story.

I'm still working on the lightbulb.


  1. Lucky you to have learned so young! I think it was 1999 when I learned the real essence of "show, don't tell" for stories. It wasn't until 2003 that I realized it applied to poetry as well. Which says a lot about why you are published at thirtysomething, while I remain unpublished at fiftysomething.


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