Wednesday, August 17

If I was a mentee, but my mentor is now my friend, does that make me de-mented?

When I was a college freshman steeling my nerves behind a facade of sarcastic humor and nonchalance, I had a professor who saw right through me. She had a timeless face, almost like a Lladro figure or a Renaissance-era painting, and what I stupidly considered a thick Southern drawl. (Oh, how foolish and inexperienced I was! Back then I'd never had neighbors who parked their John Deere in the middle of the yard all winter, or considered a whitewashed tire a fine garden planter.)

It only takes so long, though, for incisive words to cut through the distractions of voice inflection. And Dr. C had a lot to say.

She was the one who challenged me to be more honest in my writing. I was crushed by her (gentle) criticism, and mostly because I knew she was right. She prompted me to send some of my poems to literature conferences. She supported my friend Alicia and I when we started a literary journal. She was the one who made sure I, a college freshman, had an English Department–funded plane ticket and hotel reservation when I was accepted to a conference in Utah.

Probably the most challenging class I ever took in college was one of hers: Literary Theory and Criticism. Sounds dull, I know; it was anything but. By the time we enrolled in Lit Crit senior year, my classmates and I were a tightly knit coterie of honors students. Epic arguments abounded in that class. Foundations were rocked. Tears were shed. Heck, Dr. C nearly cried once.

She had our graded mid-terms clenched in her hands as she stood at the lectern, searching for words. She explained that we had done excellently as a class, but there was one person who did poorly. It was killing her. She lost sleep over it, she said. She tried to find a way to make it better, but she just didn't see how. People were groaning fitfully, Allison even announced, "It's me, I just know it!" but when Dr. C could stall no more and began handing back the tests, we were all holding our breath.

It was me.

I had misread one of the essay questions and answered it completely wrongly. It was as bad as the time I parenthetically referred to humans as "Homo erectus" in an essay for another class—only worse, because this essay was elegantly and air-tightly written around a totally erroneous thesis. I went to see her privately later on. We talked mostly about life, and almost not at all about the test.

Dr. C was the professor who pulled me out of senior seminar to tell me that another of my poems had won first place at the Southern Literary Festival. Although Dr. C and Mr. Dr. C (as we called her husband, also an English professor, mostly to try and get on his nerves in an ironical way) couldn't come, they had facilitated a trip that is still one of my fondest and proudest moments from college. Friends and professors came with me to accept the award at Mississippi College. We all blew off the second day of the conference to go bash around Oxford and meander reverently through Rowan Oak. (But not so reverently that I didn't filch a peach pit from the yard and attempt to grow my own tree, a descendent of the original.)

Aside from being a great encourager, Dr. C was something of a fashion icon for me. Comfortable jeans, black Birkenstock clogs, and blazers with the sleeves rolled up. Yes, I thought. I could live my life in that. Incidentally, at this very moment my black Birkenstock clogs are in the shoe basket by the front door, waiting to be slipped back on in cooler weather.

*   *   *

Dr. C is now signing her emails "Dana," which throws me off even six years since I sat in her classroom. Transitioning from respected teacher and mentor to friend—and colleague.

Dana got in touch with me about copyediting her novel, which is about to be sent out to publishers. Guys, it's fantastic. As I told her, it reminds me of Dan Brown but literary, of Neil Gaiman but more accessible. All that's about genre, though. The writing is thoroughly, beautifully, Dana Chamblee-Carpenter.

A very important character from the novel, Mouse, has been writing diary entries at MouseScript.blogspot.com.  From a publishing perspective it's a brilliant move. Plus, it's super-fun and wonderfully written. I mean, imagine one of your favorite characters from a novel keeping a live journal. That is what this is. Go on and subscribe to it, and one day when a movie's being made of the book, you'll get special recognition in the credits. Okay so I don't have the authority to say that, but that should tell you how good this book is.

In other book-related news, I've reviewed Sapphire's latest novel, The Kid, which is the follow-up novel to Push, which was adapted into the Academy Award–winning film Precious based on the novel Push by Sapphire. Get all that? This was not an easy book to read, aesthetically or thematically. Check out the review, and let me know if you've ever pressed on through a challenging book. Include the juicy details: what was the book, what was challenging about it, etc. Because I love book gossip.

3 comments:

Emmi said...

I am always hungry for new books, and the Mouse blog is lovely - I subscribed. Thanks!

Erin said...

Emmi—Awesome! My hope is that sooner rather than later you'll be able to read all about Mouse and her fascinating story.

magnoliathoughts.com said...

there is nothing like taking a mentor-protegee relationship to the next level. i've done it once in my life from each direction, and it's so, so rewarding. those women are two of my very closest confidantes. i don't make many moves in my life without their counsel.

how fortunate we both are to have such tight, amazing relationships...

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