Our visiting writer at Columbia this semester is the wonderful British novelist Gerard Woodward, and as part of my coursework I’m doing a one-on-one manuscript consultation with him. I’ve been hearing great things about him for awhile now, and since I knew I’d be meeting him soon, I decided to read one of his novels, I’ll Go to Bed at Noon, which was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. I’m not sure whether this was a good idea: the book blew me away—it is a family novel that follows the lives of fanastically original, vibrantly imagined characters. It is hilarious and sad and true, beautifully written; in short, the kind of novel I’d like to write one day. And it intimidated the hell out of me, knowing that a writer of this caliber would be reading and critiquing my work.
If you read my post a few months ago about the simpering, schoolgirlish emails I sent to one of my writing heroes, Stuart Dybek, as part of a project for a class last semester, you will not be surprised when I tell you that I behaved rather badly when I finally got to meet Mr. Woodward this past Monday.
The first thing I did when I sat down in his office was accidentally throw my pen at him. Then, once I settled into my seat, apologizing and spilling my belongings everywhere, I began to sweat. I kept crossing and uncrossing my legs, blushing, playing with my hair, and just generally fidgeting nervously. When he asked me about myself, I rambled on and on, and then, haltingly, I tried to tell him how much I loved his book. I didn’t want to sound like a sycophant, so instead, I came off as an idiot, mumbling something like, “your book—really—I just loved—what’s your, like, process?”, all the while rifling through my bag with one hand and finally producing his novel and pointlessly waving it in his face, as if to prove that I wasn’t making all of this up.
The thing that I found so disarming was that he was so nice. Maybe that’s a British thing; we all know how polite the English are, so I was on my best behavior to try not to sound like the crass, provincial Chicagoan that I know myself to be. I just couldn’t believe (and I had this same feeling last year, in my other manuscript consultation, as well as with every conference I’ve ever had with a writing professor at Columbia) that these people take the time not only to read my work, but to think about it, encourage it, and tell me how I can make it better. Not only that, Mr. Woodward suggested—he offered—that I submit to him the other short stories from the collection I’m working on for my thesis. I asked him if he was sure he didn’t mind reading 80 more pages of my work. He shrugged, and told me that only didn’t he mind, he actually wanted to. I couldn’t believe it.
Maybe established writers are so nice to us novices because they realize how much it means to us. Every conference I’ve ever left with an established teacher-writer has always left me buoyed with hope, and feeling like my writing is headed in the right direction. Honestly, those conferences alone might be one of the best selling points to the benefits of enrolling in an MFA program.
So thank you, Mr. Woodward. Now, on to the rewrites!