Thursday, April 01, 2010

Right Place, Right Time

Five years ago last January, a student arrived late to the first session of a writing class I was teaching. This landed him in the only available seat, which was beside me. That meant that when it came time to read in pairs, he and I were sharing partners. As a consequence of that happenstance, we made an immediate connection, and his voice on paper made a distinct impression on me. When this student never returned to subsequent classes, I wondered what had happened. Was he not pleased with his experience of the class? I decided to write him, to ask. In closing my note, I told him: "You have a milk and honey way of writing..." and encouraged him to keep going. As an afterthought, I let him know that I coached writers individually as well, should he ever be interested in something like that. Here is his reply:
February 18, 2005 Kathryn, Thank you. You are exceedingly gentle, real and honest - these are rare qualities. You are a careful teacher. I would like to explore some one-on-one work. Last year I took a sabbatical to write about some interviews that I collected from young black men who have been victims of violence. I have a very "shitty first draft" of what I hope will some day be a book. But I am determined to write it my way, not in the way some of the momentarily interested agents wanted me to. I would love to talk more... Thanks, John
Two months later, I met with John Rich for our first of a handful of sessions spanning about a year and a half. We got him and the project on track for sure, and then John took the ball and ran with it. The rest, as they say, is history. My part in John's achievement was small, but an absolute grace and a privilege. I was touched by the stories of Wrong Place, Wrong Time long before they got anywhere near a printing press. "I don't look at a young black men the same..." I told him in one of our sessions. I could see this touched John in return. Of course, because it was just the sort of (r)evolution he hoped to cause by writing all this down, by getting it out in the world. John graciously deemed my part worthy of a generous acknowledgment within the book's pages, and mailed a fresh, hardcover copy to me last Christmas season, accompanied by a warm and equally generous note and inscription. I might as well have been greeting a new grandchild when I opened the package, for all the joy and pride and admiration I felt! This book is a blessing, a change maker, an instrument for peace. That is why I am mentioning it here, why I am praising and acknowledging the work, its subjects, and all who had a part in its coming to be. Give yourself the gift of reading it.
Postscript: When I wrote to John for permission to publish this, he responded immediately with a wholehearted yes, adding an additional memory of his own: When I came to the first class, I was nervous. I felt like I had entered a room full of writers as an imposter. I remember that you instructed us first on the “how” and then asked us to write from the prompt “I remember.” I wrote something about my grandmother’s kitchen, unsure where to start and how to finish. When you invited me to read, I said “It’s kind of a mess.” You offered me the option to pass, but I went ahead and read. The group jumped in with recall which plucked out pieces of my short passage. I will never forget this: you turned to me and said “Still think it’s a mess?” That was a turning point.


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