I took an ethnic literature class at ASU my first semester there. I’d just transferred from Brigham Young University (a super conservative school) and was a little shell-shocked by the culture change. I went from a school with a super-strict dress code and where we said prayers before and after every class, to a place with miles of skin and professors starting the class with passionate F-bombs.
My ethnic lit class was taught by a professor who didn’t shy away from difficult topics. She was my hardest professor, but the one I learned the most from.
The first paper I wrote for her, she refused to grade. It was a paper on symbolism in a short story by Sherman Alexie. She handed it back to me and told me to rewrite it. She said, “I know you’re not racist, but you are coming across that way. This is elitist BS. Rewrite it.”
I was mortified and devastated. She was right, I was not racist, but when I reread over my paper with these thoughts in mind and saw a bunch of offensive stereotypes and cultural sayings I'd used as arguments, I realized that I was seriously uninformed. And judgmental. So, I took my research deeper. A lot deeper.
I ended up making an appointment to meet with my professor and talk about some of the new ideas I had, to see if I was on the right track. In that hour, she opened up my eyes to how important it is to embrace other cultures, to not buy into stereotypes, to not act like or believe that I am better than anyone else. She said that I, especially, should understand a heritage of being brutalized and kicked from one’s home, and show compassion for that. (This because I’m Mormon, and my ancestors were beaten, raped, killed, driven from their homes and pushed westward because of their beliefs. Sherman Alexie, the author of the short story my paper was on, is Native American.)
I rewrote the paper, pouring all of my research and new ways of thinking into it.
It is the hardest thing I’ve ever written because it required me to stretch and grow and think differently than I had before. It made me really look within myself and realize that I can’t always accept the surface, accept what I see on television or pop culture, but that I need to always, ALWAYS, remember that I am reading and writing and thinking and looking at people, not caricatures.
I turned in my paper and held my breath.
She didn’t return it to me when she gave the rest of the class theirs. Instead, she asked me to meet with her again. I was sick to my stomach. I’d worked harder on this paper than anything else, I’d learned more from writing this paper than I had in two and a half years of college previous to this. But maybe it still wasn’t enough.
I came to her office and she had my paper ready for me. She slid it across the desk and waited while I flipped through the pages to the back. There was a big, red “A” after the last line.
She sat back in her chair with a smile. “I loved it,” she said. “And the reason I wanted to meet with you was because I wanted to ask your permission to use your paper next year as one of my good examples for the class.”
Of course I gave her permission to do so, and I walked out of her office feeling amazing.
Of all my classes, this one was the hardest. It was the one that made me stretch and reach beyond how I used to write and think.
This professor pushed me to be better than I was, and though it was a painful process, it was invaluable.
As writers, we need to surround ourselves with people who will push us. Who believe we can do better than we are doing, and won’t settle for less. Who cheer us on and gently correct us if needed and are willing to praise and be our cheerleaders when the time is right.
They won’t let us settle for lazy writing because they believe in us.
They will encourage us to dig deeper, reach further, research more, build up our descriptions and get rid of self-indulgent prose, and to never, ever fall back on generic thinking, stereotypes, and caricatures.
If you can find a critique partner like that, you’re golden.
Because the ones who are not afraid to push us are the ones who will help us reach our full potential.