Finding Strength in Stories

Brad King reiterated countless times during his introductory JOU 280 lecture that he did not want to be our friend.

But just a few minutes into his speech, I knew that I needed to be friends with Brad King.

It began when he said this:
“Your whole life, your parents have told you that you are good writers. I’m here to tell you that you’re not.”

From the moment that first class began, Brad had been virtually insulting a room of young wanna-be-writers. Tension thickened the air, and I imagined that behind my peers’ scowls, their minds were reeling with skepticism and muffled rebuttals towards this abrasive new professor.

But after Brad made this statement, I had to bite my tongue to keep a big, stupid grin from taking over my face. Such an act of defiance would certainly have resulted in being called out in front of the entire class, followed by an episode of public sobbing. But I felt like smiling. Not because I was scoffing at Brad’s words, not because I wasn’t fearful, but because his attitude also left me feeling strangely relieved and excited.

Brad didn’t know that his words, to me, were a welcome elaboration of an unfinished lecture I had been hearing my entire life.

* * *

The unfinished lecture began with my father.

Even as a child, I picked up on my dad’s reverence for writing. Later, I found out that, while my dad tries to hide it, his degree is from a journalism school. I never dug up any of his work while I was growing up, but over time, I’ve gathered his story in pieces. While at U of F, he was a decently successful writer for the campus newspaper, his clips making it to statewide papers, only to be cut out by my late grandmother Mimi and lost in the moving boxes of time.

So, who knows. Maybe this begins to explain, genetically, why I’ve been writing nonsense and filling up journals since I was a young child. But when my high school teachers gave me A’s on my writing, their fawning, cursive remarks grew dull, and I grew increasingly frustrated. I knew that I was doing something wrong, that my writing lacked structure.

I knew my writing was insufficient because, from essay number one, I had received the same stamp of disapproval from my father. It never waned. After skimming through each of the amateur works I handed over to him, my dad would return them with the same unwavering response: “You write great. But I’m a great writer.”

Let it be known: I have no idea where this phrase came from. I know that my businessman father isn’t actually declaring himself the world’s best writer. Perhaps this phrase is a meaningless inside joke that he has with himself. Maybe a scary professor of his own said it back in the day. Either way, to me, this phrase has only held one meaning: to strip my pride and further set in stone my rank as a non-writer.

Each time he said this to me, I took his words to heart, knowing he wouldn’t elaborate on his judgment, and continued to hold the weight of not knowing what the hell I was doing.

The weight hung over my head as I entered college as a journalism student. Writing, I knew, was not something that you become magically good at. It was something that would take time, and some training. Being a writer was something that I could not yet understand. Finally in a college setting, I hoped that I would begin learning soon.

But after a failed semester-long stint at Indiana University (mentioned in my essay), I turned to a community college while searching for my next school. While here, one of my composition professors sat me down.

“You write well,” he told me. “Where did you learn to do it? Do you read books?”

With utter disbelief, I glared back at him. My writing was flowery, soft and mostly meaningless. But he was serious, and asking me a painfully dumb question to boot. I had to imagine slapping him to offset my rage. Of course I fucking read books! What a noble advantage over the other youth in the course that don’t turn anything in at all! On the outside, I forced a polite response. “Gee, thanks. Yeah, I’ve read some books.”

My hope was waning. I knew I could write what instructors wanted to hear. But that shouldn’t have passed as writing. I felt like an imposter. Wasn’t college supposed to be the turning point? Weren’t professors supposed to be ripping our work apart, showing us the ropes? I wondered how anyone learned how to be a real writer.

Here is where I have to thank my dad, because due to years of living with him, my skin has grown deceivingly thick. And if you give him a chance, he is an excellent mentor for young people. I’ve learned, through being raised by one, to recognize the tough eggs as the eggs you want to crack.

Such a mindset prepared me to befriend Brad King, a much-needed mentor for the trade of writing that I had tinkered with my entire life.

* * *

“This class will likely be the first time you experience the realities that you don’t write well.”

The above is an excerpt from Brad’s JOU 280 syllabus. The document is available online if former students wish to take a jaunt down memory lane. I would also recommend the syllabus to any stranger who believes writing is “fun,” or that he or she may someday thrive on “natural talent.”

Though bitter, the words don’t jump at you on the page quite like they do on the first day of one of Brad’s classes. His introductory speech remains fuzzy in the collective memories of former students, likely because of a shared repression.

I enrolled as another naïve hopeful in Brad’s Introduction to Magazine Writing course in January 2010. Having never seen him before, I didn’t know what to expect from this peculiar man in a sweater vest on our first day of class. I noticed he wasn’t particularly smiling – at anyone. Rather, his piercing blue eyes scanned the room intensely, triggering a wave of intimidation throughout the sleepy crowd. When the clock hit the hour, he locked the door and began to pace the front of the room.

It sunk in that this course would, at the very least, be a challenge. More than likely, this man would trigger chronic anxiety for most of the students in the room.

When Brad addressed his silent gathering of bewildered strangers, his voice was surprisingly strong and tinged with an unrecognizable accent – later proclaimed to be Appalachian. Any of our personal efforts to size him up were promptly executed. Ten minutes into class, Brad announced that he knows his shit better than anyone in the room. Therefore, he wouldn’t allow us to waste his time.

Startled by his seriousness, I scrambled to record the specifics of his lecture, scribbling notes like ‘Brad is not your friend’ and ‘Don’t be late!’ in my notebook. Meanwhile, his tone escalated.

But when he said that it was his job to tell us that we suck, it hit me: Wait a minute – This person really knows his shit! After enough disappointing, passive writing courses throughout high school and college, I had almost forgotten to keep an eye out for mentors. In a moment, the scathing, sweater vest tyrant before me turned into glowing symbol of writer-mentor-hope. But I didn’t dare smile. Blurting out, “Hey, this is great! I’m so excited for you to completely hate my work!” would have come across as both completely moronic and hopelessly sarcastic, given the context. So, I just told myself that we would become friends sometime.

* * *

As the story goes, Brad and I did become friends. He made some other friends, too. I couldn’t have imagined, at the time, the great people sitting both in my class and Brad’s other classes that were going through similar revelations about their writing and their professor.

Brad decided, about a year ago, to gather a handful of these friends to get together and stop being timid about writing. And for that, I have to thank the shouting man in the sweater vest, because he knows the importance of bringing people together and he has helped us, with great effort on his part, tell our stories. Together, our group talked about writing, shared writing and rolled up our sleeves to get down to the gritty process.

Before we could turn back, each of us found ourselves knee-deep in sharing very deep-rooted, very real stories from our own lives. As I’ve told Brad and the other Invictus writers, I never thought I would be writing such a personal story to release for so many others’ eyes, for people that I don’t even know.

“I feel like this belongs in a journal,” I wrote to Brad several times. “I just want to throw it under my bed.”

To which he responded: “That’s because you haven’t found the STORY.”

I think all of us reached a breaking point in recognizing that the little things we have gone through, when shared, are bigger than ourselves. We may have started out writing about a humiliating moment, an ex or a scandal, but what we found, through months of drafts and breakfast meetings, was something more. Slowly, we each began connecting dots, exploring characters and uncovering triumphs. We recognized the complex adventures that are our own lives.

We found our stories. And in doing so, we found our strength.

I’d like to thank everyone involved with this project. I feel nothing but giddy excitement for the bright futures of my fellow Invictus writers and I have nothing but deep gratitude for Brad.

So, congrats, guys. Here’s to many more years of steering our own souls – and telling good stories along the way.