Giving Thanks to a Challenging Teacher by Brad Windhauser
I love being in a classroom. Even outside of a school setting, I love learning. This passion was fostered by a great number of teachers in my life, and I’m thankful for each one who inspired learning in me. These gifted teachers all shared one crucial trait: they taught me how to think, not what to think. In my growth as an author, I have been taught by several writers. I don’t know that I could say any one was better than the others—although a few “got” my work better than others, which impacted how well my stories grew in any given semester. Still, I learned something valuable from each person.
I can say, however, that when I was getting my narrative feet wet in college (UCSD), one particular teacher pushed me harder than I had been pushed up until that point, and he set me up well to pursue the craft of fiction: Mel Freilicher.
I took Mel’s Intro to Fiction class my junior year. That large-lecture class focused on learning to read fiction as well as write a few short stories. Since I’d been an avid reader my whole life, I figured I’d breeze through. However, during his class discussions, the way he parsed through content, focused on the use of each word in a sentence and how authors built their ideas, I had to change how I read—I wasn’t reading nearly as closely as I could. If I was going to be a writer, I needed to learn to read as a writer—I needed to focus on how the elements of the story were shaped and how they all worked together, rather than just focusing on what I thought of the content.
When it came to workshopping, I had taken other college courses. I had received good, positive feedback from peers and teachers alike—my style worked, apparently. But Mel’s approach to critiquing—ensuring students prepared a detailed, 500-word minimum response to each peer’s work—forced me to develop my feedback and also compelled my peers to be more thorough in their evaluation of my stories. This diligence revealed several weaknesses in my style, which I was finally able to see for myself. This forced me to be more critical of what I produced, which challenged me to work harder and better develop my content.
Perhaps the most useful feedback I received was from him. He typed out lengthy responses to our stories, using detailed paragraphs to address all the writing components, such as use of scene and character development. He fully explained his reactions, which made clear what needed to be addressed in my revisions. This approach benefited my work, as I learned what to address and, going forward, I learned how to anticipate the type of reaction he would have and apply it to my own drafts—which I still do today. I also adopted this approach with my own creative writing students.
I took Mel three times when I was an undergraduate. I received an A- in the intro course but two B+’s in each of his smaller workshop courses. Although I had wished I’d earned higher grades in those workshops, I felt like I really earned those grades. He pushed me harder than any teacher had up until that point. Without him, I don’t know that I would have gone on to do well in grad school or in developing my writing style, and for that I’m very thankful.