0 Jeff Salyards | Monthly Archive | December
Archive | December, 2013

The Troglodyte Shuffle

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I’ve had forgettable teachers. Some that were going through the motions, counting the days to retirement. Others were well-intentioned but just not really engaging or inspiring at all. I’ve also had a few who were memorable but for being awful—professors who were so invested in their own publishing efforts they used the same syllabus ten years running with nary a change and taught completely by rote, or worse, teachers who seemed to detest their lot in life, their students, their classroom.

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But I’ve also been lucky to have a number of teachers at various levels who had a profound impact on my life, who pushed me, made me uncomfortable, demanded things of me, made me accountable, brought out my best even when I seemed intent on stopping them. And in almost every case, it was because they not only cared or encouraged, but because they called me out on my shit. And no one did this in such spectacular, verbose, vicious, and still humane fashion as Robin Metz, a literature and creative writing professor at Knox College.

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I’d taken a couple of fiction workshops with Robin, and he lived up to his reputation—an amazing professor who talked three feet above almost everyone’s head, the sort of teacher who delights in being the brightest guy in most every room and never dumbs down his vocabulary or presentation, but just expects you will either try to keep pace or fall behind. Robin was also my advisor, and I considered him my mentor. Which makes this next bit unconscionable.

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It was my sophomore year, and I was taking another fiction workshop. These classes met once a week, often for a grueling four or five hour session. And since we were on the trimester system at Knox and it only met ten times, Robin made it clear that you shouldn’t miss a class unless you were dead or dying. Or Jeff Salyards. Who, for reasons not entirely clear, decided to be a total assclown that semester in all his classes, even the one in his major taught by his mentor, and who also had a massive ego, figuring he could coast, pull all-nighters, and still do just fine, thank you very much. That was my usual m.o., but I was in overdrive that trimester. Or underdrive.

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I missed three fiction workshops out of ten. And didn’t have a legitimate excuse for a single one. Not even an illegitimate excuse. Well, unless drinking counts.

But wait. I’m only getting started. Each student would have at least two stories workshopped in class, preferably three, then revise everything significantly and turn in a portfolio of no less than 35 pages at the end of the trimester. I only submitted one story early on, and it was half-hearted at best and it got lambasted, deservedly so. I don’t even remember what it was about. And I missed another class when I was supposed to turn in my second story, and kept making excuses the remainder of the semester for why that never happened. Already on a roll, I decided to skip the last class. Which, coincidentally, was also when Robin changed the date when the portfolio was due, moving it up several days.

Finally, it was finals week and time to polish my “portfolio,” which so far consisted of one story that was barely salvageable if I had interest in trying, which I didn’t, and half of another story I’d started but never mustered the enthusiasm to finish. I was wandering around campus, thinking about what to do, or Pop Tarts or something, when I bumped into Kris Choma and Mike Smith, two other writers in the class. Mike asked me how my portfolio was coming along.

I replied, “Not so hot. But at least I have a few more days.”

They looked at each other, then back to me. “What are you talking about? It’s due tomorrow. Oh, wait, you missed the last class, didn’t you. . .?”

After several minutes of manic laughter and falling into a bush, I sprinted to the library and got started—I had about 30 hours to put together 35 pages. But instead or buckling down and making something of the crappy raw material I had, I decided I was going to go in a completely different direction and write and submit the first few chapters of a science fiction novel as my portfolio. That’s what I wanted to write all along, but Robin had dissuaded me.

I wrote like mad, but being sleep-deprived, slap-happy, and under the gun, when I struggled with some character names I decided to go with “Laro Xes” and “Repus Nam” (go backwards, word by word, yep, you have it—genius. . . sheer. . . genius). I also included gratuitous sex scenes just for kicks. The chapters ended up being 33 pages rather than 35, but I was out of time. After running into some problems in the computer lab printing it, I raced across campus and found Robin’s office locked tight (I was an hour or two late). Pages in hand, I continued running across town, but he wasn’t home, so I dropped the package in his mailbox, dusted my hands off, and congratulated myself.

So, to recap: I missed about a third of the classes; only submitted one story for workshopping and it was atrocious; opted to write something completely brand new for the portfolio that Robin hadn’t seen before; chose science fiction, even though Robin was adamant that young writers should master the fundamentals before jumping into speculative fiction, anything postmodern, etc.; chose to hand in three chapters of a novel I just started instead of self-contained short stories; cackled at my perverse and ridiculous character names; fell short of the minimum page requirement; and delivered the whole package of awesomeness a few hours after deadline.

I was pretty proud of myself. I felt like these crazy introductory chapters were top-shelf. After all, I’d worked really hard on them for more than an entire day straight.

So imagine my surprise when I got my grades next trimester and discovered I got a C in fiction writing. My major. From my advisor. I was shocked at first, and then ticked off. Yes, it was last minute, and incomplete, and late, but damn it, I’d worked my ass off and was genuinely happy with what I produced in that white hot burst of creativity. Those 33 pages were Grade-A.

I checked Robin’s office, but he wasn’t there, so I tried the Gizmo—a little snack shop café on campus. Sure enough, he was sitting alone at a table, all tweed and salt and pepper. I marched up to him, said hello. Robin smiled, no doubt imagining I was humbled and contrite, and ready to talk about how not to repeat the debacle of my last semester.

Instead, I help up my “report card” and said, “I don’t understand.”

“Oh?” he replied. “What can I help you with?”

“You gave me a C? Really?!”

Robin’s affable smile disappeared, bushy mustache precariously balanced over now tightly-drawn lips, his eyes narrowed and not friendly. “Sit down,” he said. It was not a request.

I did, suddenly feeling less sure of myself. And over the next two hours, I figured out why alarm bells were going off belatedly. I had stomped in there, indignant, ready to present my case why I deserved at least a B—at least!–and my disproportionate arrogance set Robin off and incurred his wrath. He ripped me a new one in such incensed, articulate, elliptical, hyperbolic, and brilliant language, I was absolutely stunned and could do nothing but sink lower in my chair, occasionally offering brief responses when required, but otherwise silent and paralyzed as I suddenly realized mistakes were made. It was like being berated by a furious combination of Abraham Lincoln, James Joyce, and Edgar Allen Poe. I didn’t even understand everything he said, but there were anecdotes and allusions aplenty, literary history and tirades about frittered potential and ill-deserved smugness along the way, but the message he kept circling back to again and again was, in so many words: “I can’t believe what a colossal asshole you are.”

In the middle of this scalding scolding, Kris and Mike saw us and started heading over until I shook them off. Something about my defeated expression and troglodyte posture, and the veins pulsing in Robin’s head, told them that it was a really bad time, and they moved away. Fast.

I wish I had Robin’s speech on tape—it was absolutely amazing and mesmerizing, beautiful and horrible in equal measure, culminating with the one line I remember exactly: “You are a failure not only as a writer and an artist, but as a human being.”

OK, admittedly a bit ruthless. But my skull is like a lead bunker and he needed the big bombs to get through, as he tried to impress upon me just what a complete and utter jackass I’d been, disrespecting him, the other hardworking students in the class, and myself and my talent. Robin wanted me to see how I was squandering a wonderful opportunity and wasting everyone’s time, and if he had pulled his punches, I doubt I would have received the message. He could have failed me, and by all rights, should have. But as he said, the grade was immaterial. Something bigger, more lasting, and of greater consequence was at stake.

And it worked. I got it. I stumbled out of the Gizmo in a fugue, uncertain what had just happened, with no idea where to go, but having perfect clarity about one thing: I had been given a pass when I didn’t deserve one, but there wouldn’t be another. It was time to do better or change majors. Or maybe join clown school.

Robin’s impassioned indictment wasn’t completely transformative—I never became the best student on campus, and still occasionally imploded or suffered from delusions of grandeur, but not on that scale. And I had enough self-awareness after that to check and catch myself more often than not  (although David Foster Wallace gave me another well-deserved ass-kicking a few years later, so nobody’s perfect). But still, if Robin hadn’t taken the time to deliver that verbose and grand speech, to really try to get my attention and impart something, I probably would have bobbed along through the rest of my college years, maybe beyond, failing to realize that writing is a craft and requires dedication, commitment, and most of all, work. Lots of work.

At the end of the day, talent only gets you so far and you can only play the potential card a limited time. You have to sit your ass in the seat and write, and you have to develop some kind of apparatus for critiquing your own writing. But most of all you have to work hard at it. Craft doesn’t happen on its own or through wishful thinking.

Robin taught me that. I need a refresher now and then, but he helped instill that in me, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

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