Advice… And The Only Useful Thing A Writing Professor Ever Told Me

The author in between bar napkins.

Years ago, I took a class in creative writing at a small community college in the Bay Area. It was a gut course: an easy A since grading was based entirely on participation; on whether or not you did the work. The assignments, if you can call them that, were essentially to write whatever you wanted. The instructor, who I’ll call Caren, simply told us that “writers write,” and left us to our pens and notebooks.

I, being 19 and as full of beer, Bukowski, Behan, and Byron as I was of myself, took to writing melodramatic and pained essays about the women that I fallen in love with and the Irish bar that I sat and drank at. Most of them were awful, but only because–and I can say this objectively 20+ years later–they were saccharine, sentimental, and overwritten. If I was guilty of anything stylistically, it was of being 19 and convinced that “write drunk, edit sober” was the second greatest piece of advice I had ever heard, right after “writers write.”

I never really edited anything, sober or otherwise. I did, however, write drunk quite a lot, often turning in assignments on bar napkins or the backs of flyers: I thought they added to the authenticity of not only my prose, but particularly to my contributions to the canon of tormented-writers-in-bars, which I was convinced I was destined to be enshrined in.

A month or so into the semester, Caren asked me to come into her office. I was unsure what she wanted to chat about, but looking back, I am almost certain that I thought she was going to sing my praises, perhaps introduce me to an agent, tell me that I was the best writer she had ever had in a class, and generally launch my career as the next big literary enfant terrible.

That’s not what happened.

Instead, she handed back an envelope full of my bar napkins, flyers, and beer-stained notebook papers and asked me to drop her class. She said that she was concerned that I drank too much and that my writing-as-performance (she didn’t call it that: I wouldn’t run into Roland Barthes until much, much later) was somehow contributing to my general dissolution. “Alcohol’s a killer,” she said. “I think you should drop this class… and maybe see someone.” Mind you, I never came to her class drunk: I was always sober, eager to participate and give positive feedback, and I turned in my work on time. Naturally, I was confused. I didn’t really know what to say. After all, “writers write” and that’s what I was doing; indeed, that’s all I wanted to do. And yet, for some reason, she was asking me to leave.

What she didn’t talk about was whether or not my writing was any good or even if it was terribly awful. In fact she didn’t talk about my writing at all. To this day, I can’t remember if she ever commented on any of my work.

It was a fairly short meeting. I thanked her for her obvious concern and left without promising anything one way or the other, though I knew as soon as she suggested it that my answer was no. I continued going, continued writing; continued turning things in.

At the end of the semester, I found that she gave me a C. It was the lowest grade I ever earned (as in, not a late withdrawal F) in a college class until I got a C in an introductory statistics class at Columbia.

Rather than kill my love of writing, it only made me more determined. I thought her “C” was the pettiest, most passive-aggressive thing I had ever seen. Come to think of it, I still rank it pretty highly in that category. I kept writing. More importantly, I kept reading. I outgrew Bukowski. I found other poets and writers and, through them, discovered more. My style became less derivative and more refined. My bad habits were beaten out of me by other professors, both in and out of the classroom. A cab driver and would- be-novelist once told me, point-blank and with appropriately searing contempt that I can still feel today, “Look. Nobody wants to hear about your soul. Nobody fucking cares about your soul. Don’t ever write about your goddamn soul again.”

I never wrote about my goddamn soul again.

I did, however, keep writing.

On receipts. Notebooks. Flyers. Bar napkins.

One of those bar napkins eventually ended up being the very first single piece of writing I was ever paid for. It got me $50.00 in a non-fiction contest and was typed while I was working as the head of security at a shopping center. It was the first real glimpse of my writing, of my style, minus my younger attempts to distill whoever my literary obsession du jour was. That style and those skills that I refined and taught myself between the tedious hours that came with working shit jobs and the dark nights of day-drinking in bars eventually opened new doors for me. First to a late and hard-earned degree in English at Columbia, then a job as a writer, then as a screenwriter, then as a songwriter, and along the way as an essayist, researcher, poet, riddle-writer, accidental journalist, editor, and social media…

Well, I don’t know what you would call my various forays into social media, but let’s not say “cult leader,” because that’s an old joke.

To some extent, I have to thank Caren, because none of that would have been possible without my unwillingness to believe that I was ever a “C” writer.

Still. The real credit belongs to me, the bar napkins and books, the bars, and, of course every lonely writer who stubbornly collected “C” grades and rejection slips, disappointments and shitty jobs, criticism and sharp advice, and who dared, as Thoreau did, to stand up and live before sitting down to write.

(Writer’s note: I did not edit this after writing it and I still write on bar napkins)