Dear Mr. Russo,
I attended your panel discussion yesterday at Wordstock, and talked briefly with you afterward at the book signing. I am so grateful you took the time to come to Portland, because in addition to the fact that you are a great and well-loved American writer, you were one of my creative writing professors at university, and your visit prompted me to look back on the nearly 30 years since that class.
I wish I’d had a chance to talk with you about it, a foolish wish, given your stature as a Pulitzer winner and author of a number of films with seriously famous people. I mean, once you’ve worked with Paul Newman, is there any space in your brain for memories of undergrads at a third-rate university?
I know for me, the answer would be “no.”
But there’s still so much I wish I could have told you, like people often do when seeing former teachers. In this place in my memory, *I* have moved on, aged, had a whole life that would no doubt fascinate you, but *you* have just been there at my old university, slogging away in the labyrinthine halls of the College of Liberal Arts, waiting for the day when some former student reaches out to tell you what a wonderful teacher you were, and gives you some reason to continue this thankless task.
Wait no more, Mr. Russo, for your moment of appreciation has arrived.
In 1989, I was a creative writing major. You were the English professor teaching my second creative writing-focused class. My first writing class was taught by a poet whose main claim to fame was a book of poetry about poodles on the moon, if I remember correctly. I didn’t get much from his class except a fascinating exercise in establishing character, strange that it came from a poet, but useful nonetheless.
Your class was seminal for me, a place where I learned the mechanics of storytelling, the nuts and bolts of writing in a way that invites the reader into the story. You emphasized the importance of writing cleanly, avoiding or eliminating any parts that interrupted the reader, took them out of the story for any reason, including confusing syntax, spelling and grammatical errors (obviously), continuity issues, or any other bit that could make a reader stop and think “wait a minute … that’s not right” or “what does she mean by that?” or “this character had blonde hair before … let me find that …”
That was the most important lesson I took away from my entire degree in English; that writing is useless if the reader gets trapped trying to sort out what you’re trying to say. This served me well as a copy editor, something I often did as an outgrowth of being an administrative assistant, because admins are often given the task of writing communication for their bosses, which led in my case to being tapped to write or review all communication going through an office, which led to copy editing for course materials, which led to … well, you get the picture.
But there was more to that semester than the important lessons from your class. That semester, I became pregnant, an event that upended me, an unmarried undergrad studying the lucrative field of writing, who was dating a man with a brilliant and prosperous future as a jazz bassist. The story of my pregnancy made it into my work for class, and in my simplistic memory, that moment of my young-adult self seeking a solution to one of life’s more challenging problems is frozen, right alongside you, in the carbonite of history, unchanged, retaining its terrifying bitter chill.
I’ve read your work over the years, nearly every book, and have enjoyed the humor and respect with which you handle your characters. I refer to your writing for a refresher on clarity, those tenets you imparted in class, and for the warmth of your voice in story.
Having you appear in Portland now, when the story of my pregnancy so many years ago has run its full course, when the children I bore as a result of that eventual marriage are now grown and living on their own, when I am in the position at last to live purely for writing — and not fitting it in when I had a few blank lines in a notebook and a spare moment between parenting responsibilities — seems like a fitting bookend. While I knew I wanted to be a writer from a young age, it was your class, your instruction that gave me the tools to do the work with some efficiency and skill.
If there had been time at Wordstock, this is what I would have told you: Thank you for showing me how to write, for being a thoughtful listener to my immature storytelling and for taking the time to give my work, as raw as it was, respectful consideration.
I know it was your job, but other people at the university were telling me that I should simply quit, just give up, because I was never going to finish. Life, they told me, would be the end of my plans to be a writer, and I was certainly not going to get my degree.
For the record, I didn’t quit. I got my degree, which turned out to be pretty useful in this career I’ve cobbled together working with words.
And in your way, you encouraged me to keep going, in my writing but also in life, and the directions are the same for both: to keep it clean and understandable, to have as few interruptions and mistakes as possible, to focus on finishing the story, whatever shape it took.
I finished that story, Mr. Russo. That life that had just started when I was a 20 year old in your class has run its dramatic arc and reached a fitting conclusion. I don’t need you to read it, but now it’s done. Finally.
My writing is accelerating now; I’m an entertainment writer for a media company, I’ve contributed to a couple of national blog sites, and am several stories into writing my collection of short stories, which is still my milieu. I don’t professionally copy-edit other people’s work anymore; focusing on correcting the bad writing of other people is a serious drain on my creative resources. I’m giving my work the space it needs.
You were an important part of my development as a writer, and I just want to say “thanks.”
P.S.–that baby turned 27 a few weeks ago. He turned out okay, despite the fact that I finished my degree.