Writer’s Brock – “Colson!”

For a semester I took a class from a man who seemed to dislike me on sight, the writer Colson Whitehead. I was told he had  MacArthur genius grant and so I had high expectations going in.  Such status is almost on the level of Nobel prize and I came in thinking highly of man knowing only his writing. The first session we had with him, he started off by saying he would tell us something about himself, and then it would go the next person, until we were all introduced. This seemed to be for his benefit as there were only ten people in the MFA program at the time. He started: “My name is Colson Whitehead. I went to Harvard.” That was all. This bothered me because it sounded like gloating and also because I didn’t go to Harvard. At the time I was working on a draft of my now defunct novel “Dry World”. When I brought in a draft, I was accused of “modifer bloating” – clogging up the flow of prose by using too many adjectives and adverbs. I had always felt that specificity in writing was the goal, and so this criticism mystified me. I have seen his point since, but I liked the man even less when he pointed out something genuinely wrong with my work. My other teachers at Hunter, my MFA program, had lauded my writing and I felt like that was my due. Whitehead was not giving such praise to me. Looking back, this sort of feedback was helpful even as it wounded my enormous ego, perhaps because it wounded my enormous ego. But one bit of guidance bothers me more now than any did then. On my novel, Whitehead was heard to say, “You can’t make teenagers partying on the beach interesting. It just isn’t.” At the time I resented the shit out of this, and that has only gotten worse because of what Whitehead subsequently wrote. A few years after I graduated, the writer came out with a book called “Sag Harbor” which is explicitly about teenagers on the beach. Perhaps he sought to do the impossible, what I couldn’t do: write what was trite into something new. Perhaps. Still, it stings that the man did what I was trying to do up until very recently, and was generally lauded for doing so, all after telling me explicitly not to do what he later did. A bildungsroman is always a challenge. In a way it was too much for me. But hypocrisy has always bothered me, and “Sag Harbor” felt like precisely that. So I find myself cursing the author’s name aloud once in a while. “Colson!” I whisper loudly. All of which is to say that perhaps he taught me a great lesson even in doing what he told me not to do. What that lesson is I am still discerning, and may spend a chunk of my life doing so.  Every time I write an adjective where it may not be needed, I think, “Colson!” Every time I find myself drawn to write about the long swaths of my youth spent on beaches, I think “Colson!” Thank God spite is such a mighty motivator. It might make me write something good someday. Until then, I will think of my one antipathetic writing teacher of many, many writing teachers and remember his one lesson that stuck with me most. Whitehead made his name writing a novel about men who inspect elevators. He found something strange and made it beautiful. I cannot argue that his writing is anything less than that. Before that he had written something cute and personal and ironic and it had been roundly rejected. All of which has put me on a quest to find something weird enough to make my name. As I fumble through the eratta of my work and the erratics of strange life, I seek more strangeness still, stopping once in a while, only rarely now, but still there, still cursing in mind mind, all loud whispers, “Colson!”