Friday, August 16, 2013

Old School VCU Gossip or When I Met My First Novelist

My first year of MFA school at VCU, Virginia Commonwealth University, there were only four poets admitted and four fiction writers.  I was the only female fiction writer.  I tip my hat and curtsy my skirt to Bill Tester and Gregory Donovan because they helped me get in.  I'd been rejected before.  I had actually taken classes through the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in order to refresh and find a reference to apply, but my instructor informed me that she didn't write letters of recommendation because it was "an academic conflict..."  Whatever the fuck that meant!  She also wouldn't accept or read more than three pages of text per class.  Go figure.  Lazy much?

So, I enrolled in night classes while teaching 8th grade English at L. Douglas Wilder Middle School.  My instructor, Bill Tester, did write a reference letter for me after our class together. I am still to this day over-the-moon grateful, and Gregory Donovan, who is now the chair of the department, was my first creative writing teacher at VCU, circa 1990.  I have just aged the poor man.  He's a gem.  (I had such a crush on him.)    

Digressing more, but you will like this:  On the first day of class, Bill Tester said, "Write about something you'd never write about."  I went home at 11 pm, having to teach the next day, and did just that.  I wrote about something pretty vile.  So much so that the following week when I shared what I had written, a girl in the class said, "I felt like I needed to take a shower."  Bill was so cool.  He said, "Michele did the assignment.  She put it out there."  When we had to share our work aloud, I would break into a mad sweat and have trouble reading.  No more.    

So, Fast Forward A LOT!  I'm all grown up and married and getting my MFA after many years teaching ghetto kids English.  Ghetto was their term, not mine.  Great kids.  Anyway, I digress again.  

So, here we are at a party the summer before MFA classes started, the same year I got married:  1999.  One of the poets from Canada, Dani, hosts a meet-and-greet.  At the party, I met a wonderful girl named Becky who had written a novel.  Mind you, it wasn't a published novel, but she had written a novel!  She was in her second year of the program.  I can't even put into words the admiration I felt toward her.  I could not get over it.  I had started fifty novels, but I hadn't "finished" one of them.  It's sort of funny to me now because I've written a lot of novels, novels that will never see the light of day--because they are more foreplay.  Not the real thing.  It's a building-up process, a getting-to-know your characters kind of thing, but at the time it was surreal, the most incredible thing to me, to complete a story, a vision.  

I would later take classes with Becky and a score of good writers, and they were wonderful.  In so many ways.  My professor Tom De Haven used make fun of me because I talked about writing so much.  He spoke at my final thesis reading and said (and I paraphrase) that writers who talk about writing all the time usually can't write for shit.  Except in my case.  

I owe so much to Becky and Greg and Bill and Tom.  They have influenced me more than they'll ever know.   Thanks for letting me share a hodgepodge of VCU memories.  Next year, we're having a big reunion.  I hope to see all of them.  And Margaret and Marcel and Ginny and Jamie and Boz and Brigitte and Jim and Dave and Thomas and Allison and Jenny and Larry and Mindy and everybody else--cuz I just be throwing it out.   

I think I'm on my fiftieth draft of Where I Am Born.  I "finished" the book a long time ago, but needless to say, "It was not finished."  Getting closer and closer.  Inching and creeping.  

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