Fourteen years ago, while pursuing a graduate degree in humanities (a Master of Liberal Studies), I gathered the courage to take a creative writing course with the South African novelist, Sheila Roberts. Each week, she challenges us to write a new piece, share it with the class, and offer feedback and comments to one another. She managed to nurture an incredible learning community and concluded it by teaching me the power of three words.
I still remember many of my classmates. At the end of the table there was a barefoot high school English teacher who managed to fit marijuana or intimate moments into almost every story, and included a healthy dose of language that clashed with my Midwestern protestant roots. Next to him sat a large man with a slow drawl and long black hair, always in a tight ponytail. He wrote wild, imaginative stories that reminded me of Gabriel García Márquez. Next to him sat an a guy who, if I remember correctly, spent his evenings on a full shift at UPS while pursuing his PhD in English. He wrote sturdy, familiar stories about the ordinary work of grocery store clerks and small town coaches; creating incredible but entirely believable moments that left the room laughing and crying at the same time. Across from him was a confident woman who spent much of the last decade volunteering and leading personally meaningful causes in the community. Unlike my sloppy and meandering style, she wrote like a Ninja; precise and graceful prose that would sneak up on us and leave us wondering what just happened. A half-dozen others, just as interesting and diverse, gathered around the table several times a week.
I loved writing, but I doubted my ability and was embarrassed by my awkward, sloppy, imprecise, simple sentences and stories. Nonetheless, I read and listened to others discuss what they heard. The experience of hearing people talk out loud about my writing remains one of the more formative aspects of my life as a writer.
I had many conversations with the professor before and after class, candidly sharing my goals, aspirations, and insecurities. At the time that I was working on this graduate degree in humanities, I was also writing a dissertation for my doctorate at a different school. As I spoke with Sheila Roberts, I always admired how she chose words carefully whether speaking or writing, and how she offered more questions and relevant personal experiences than anything else. She did not critique or judge our writing as much as she observed, enjoyed, connected with it and us. She explored each essay with us as if we were on a tour of some ancient ruin that she wanted to understand and experience with us. She invited us to think about why and how we wrote, helping us to discover and refine our voice, with little interest in our conforming to set standards or conventions.
I never saw a list of learning objectives. I don’t even remember seeing a grade, not until I looked at my transcript. Instead, she nurtured a rich and authentic community where we read, wrote, discussed, refined our craft, and learned from one another. It remains one of my fondest memories of a formal college course at any level.
Then, on the last day of this summer class, Sheila Roberts pulled me aside as others were leaving. She handed me a signed copy of her book, Purple Yams and said, “Please keep writing.” It took me years to commit to the daily habit of writing that contributed my travels around the United States and other parts of the world, allowed me to connect with countless people, and helped me to refine my thinking about life and learning in a connected age. Yet, leaving me with three simple words of encouragement helped me work through the doubts enough to finally discover and fully commit to writing.
What three words can you share with someone else on their learning journey?