Today I am meeting with my writing teacher. I am thinking about whether to be honest with her, whether I am that brave. Actually it's not whether I am that brave, because I've discovered it's not very hard for me to speak honestly. It's whether I am willing to make her uncomfortable, whether that would be the right thing to do.
What I want to say is, I have never had more difficulty communicating with someone I respect as I have with you. It seems like I make you uncomfortable, which isn't my intention but which I don't know how to fix. I feel like you don't like me, like there's this distaste that you are covering up with a forced polite laugh. That makes me feel really strange. Usually I can find my way around initial awkwardness, I can turn on the charm, laugh and be self-deprecating, but that doesn't work with you. You don't seem to like my directness. You make me feel like I'm not the right type of person, like I don't have the right kind of sensibilities. I don't think that's true. I feel like a blundering clumsy oaf around you, and that's an unusual sensation for me. I feel like the way I speak isn't valued by you. You are so British. I am so American. I'm a bull, you're a china shop.
I've learned a lot from you. I like the way you think about writing. I keep telling you that, hoping it will disarm you. I guess I've been thinking that maybe you imagine that I am challenging you, and I need to convince you otherwise. I feel like I keep rolling onto my back, exposing my underbelly, hoping you will soften. Teach me, I keep saying. Throw me your table scraps. It hasn't worked.
I have learned a lot about my limitations from you, and about my biases and comfort zones. I mostly mean in writing, as a reader and as a writer, but I guess I mean more than that. I'm impatient, although I knew that already. But I'm so damn concrete, you've made me see that about myself. I'm so moved by my senses. I live in my body; I write about motion and sensation and place and smell and touch. That is what moves me in the writing of other people. I'm suspicious of politics and philosophy and symbolism and parable and grand abstraction in writing. I don't think I'm smart enough for that. I often don't catch those things in the stories I read; I don't value them like you do. Give me beauty and sensation, give me people who seem alive, and show me what they feel and make it as real as you can, make things move and surprise me with where things go and I will be touched. I will be loyal. You will have my attention and my respect. I'm a simple creature, I think. I don't like these European writers whose characters sit in parlors and talk, vaguely disappointed. Get them outside in the warm night air, insects bumping into their skin. I like Updike -- I even dreamed in Updike's language the other night when I fell asleep reading one of his stories. But the sensation of being immersed in that complex language was like swimming through seaweed -- it pulled on me, it weighed me down, it caught at me and I was afraid I might drown in it. I don't value a lot of flourishes. It is rare that I stop in the middle of something and reread a sentence, admiring its craft. If that's happening, I disapprove. That's showing off. You and I see these things differently.
I'm happy to acknowledge that you're more intellectual than me. I've never felt like a dumb jock before but I'm starting to wonder. Last week when I begged you for feedback, suggestions, some guidelines that might help me going forward, even some idea about whether I should go forward at all, you paused and said, with your cool accented civility and a nervous laugh, "You certainly are.... goal oriented." It was clear that you didn't approve, that you found my request pedestrian and practical. Good heavens, woman. I'm the least goal-oriented person I know. Maybe that's because so many of the people I know are lawyers and business people, ambitious movers and shakers. I know what goal oriented is and I left that world behind for a life of process, exploration, experience, pleasure, possibility. But I do see some value in structure. I need milestones and feedback. I think it's useful to take stock from time to time, so you can see where you've come, and where you still need to go, so you can make course corrections.
Will I say these things to you today? It would make you very uncomfortable to acknowledge this unspoken strangeness between us. Maybe it would insult you; it would imply that we are equals, that this relationship has meaning, that our styles both have merit. Would that topple the teacher-student dynamic? Am I allowed to do that? I never would have when I was an undergraduate. But I'm a grown-up now, and I'm used to speaking frankly with adults. I don't know. I suppose if I don't have your respect it's because I haven't earned it as a writer or a reader this semester. That's my own fault, I guess. My writing hasn't been strong enough to move you. Maybe I don't force the moment to its crisis (will you like me better if I quote TS Eliot to you?). Maybe it's better if we pretend to have a friendly, distant teacher-student relationship. Maybe I should just accept your oblique comments with a nod and a smile and walk away baffled, leaving you in your cold office full of papers, relieved as the quiet settles in to take my place.