(Note: this post is a reprint of an earlier post that appeared on a shared blog, There By Candlelight. Since that site is now being repurposed, I’m slowly moving my articles over here.)
Blank paper is God’s way of telling us it’s not so easy to be God. – Craig Vetter
Some years ago (I really don’t want to think of how many years ago it’s been) I decided to take an English 101 night class at the local community college. Everyone else in the city of Santa Monica had evidently had the same idea, because when I walked in the door I found there were easily over 60 people crammed into a small airport building with 30 seats. Many of us were working adults, but there were clearly some collect students in their late teens who believed that a night class would have less homework and would thus be an easy A.
We stood and fidgeted and gave each other anxious looks, and at five minutes past the hour, our teacher arrived, one Bob Reichley. Bob was a tall, good-looking man who reminded me a little of Hugh Laurie (including the wickedly sharp sense of humor.) He started the class by skipping attendance and handing out a syllabus so strict Catholic nuns would have looked at it and blanched: down a whole grade for being late on a single paper, down two grades a second time, third time failed the class.
Once that was done, and we were left blinking at the photocopies in front of us — my god, he can’t be serious, can he? — he passed out another photocopy, this a one-page excerpt from Playboy Magazine, which he then proceeded to read out loud.
Go ahead and read it. It’s only 900 words. I’ll wait.
Bob had a lovely speaking voice, the sort that comes from long practice and a fair amount of alcohol (we would later learn that his informal off-work ‘office’ was the bar of a nearby restaurant.) The article has a lot of dry humor to it, so we dutifully laughed.
The point of the article was, after all, was that we couldn’t write and he couldn’t teach us, that writing is the path of pain and suffering and always will be. That’s an odd thing for an English teacher to point out at the beginning of a semester, no matter how true it is — and it is true. Absolutely, agonizingly true.
Then he let us out for a break.
Only 30 students bothered to come back when the break was over, and only then did he take attendance. By the end of the semester, the class of 30 was down to 12. Not quite enough to fit comfortably comfortably in the back of Bob’s car, but we had no problem finding seats in class. I asked him later about that syllabus, and he revealed the secret: all you had to turn in to be ‘on time’ was a blank sheet of paper with your name on it. He wanted to make a point about deadlines (while simultaneously scaring off the riff-raff) and about the process of writing, namely that it is a process — a series of edits, re-writes, assessments, critiques and refinements rather than one single impossibly perfect finale. The lesson was effective, and to this day I consider Bob’s class one of the most engaging, rewarding and educational experiences I’ve ever been privileged enough to experience.
I’m deeply amused to note that Craig Vetter’s brief magazine column on writing has experienced a kind of immortality on the internet, passed around in writing circles and on various forums. I will on occasion mention the article to people when the subject of writing comes up, and sometimes to my amazement people know exactly what I’m talking about — they’re always equally astonished that I know about it too, as if this is something so obscure and arcane that it constitutes a secret society, a cherished set of holy rules and warnings that only writers can understand. I can’t imagine what our secret handshake would be, but I have to imagine we would meet in local bars, at separate tables, and talk to each other little, if ever. (Thank you, waitress, I’ll have a gimlet. Of course with gin, you heathen.) No, I’m probably not giving us enough credit — misanthropes though we writers may sometimes be, we still like being able to kvetch with our own kind, yes? So perhaps we’d simply commiserate on what nasty, dirty, hard work writing is, all to create something that at the end of the day may not be any damn good at all, and how much we love it for that.
If nothing else, we could compare our tattoos.