"Nothing happens 'suddenly.'" My high school English teacher, Mr. C, was hunched over a stack of pages -- my first real novel. I recently corrupted my external hard drive by mistake (IDIOT), so there went the last copy. Some novels just aren't meant to see the light of day, I guess. For this one, it was probably for the best.
With his countless corrections in red pen, it looked like a person had been sliced open on top of it, their fingers trying to hold in a desperate drip drip drip all over the pages. We were in a back library room, as we were at least once a week a week during my senior year until a broken spine (mine) had interfered.
"Sure they do," I said. I threw my hands up in his face. "AHHH!"
He sighed, but I could see the start of a laugh. I loved that I could make him laugh.
I'm taking some liberties with this conversation. All I clearly remember is the first line. The rest I recall in generalities and expressions, the look on Mr. C's face. He was -- and is -- a student of the old school. He introduced me to the book that would change my view of writing forever: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. There goes a jazz tune.
"Do you think you can use a green pen or something?" I said. He also taught me that using anything but "said" is superfluous. "Asked," "queried," "implored," "wondered," etc. They jolt the reader out of the story. However, if you use "said," it's like using a double "the" -- the reader will glide over the text and continue reading, unaware of the the interruption.
"Why would I use a green pen?"
"Because my manuscript is bleeding. This is going to cause some serious therapy bills. I get real anxiety looking at this."
The idea of students' anxiety hadn't even occurred to him. He was feared in school, revered and hated at the same time for his no-bullshit attitude. And now he uses green or purple pens when grading. Maybe he's fallen out of the habit at the private school where he now teaches, but at least for the rest of that year, he refrained from using the red pen. I won that battle.
Mr. C is still a teacher somewhere in North or South Carolina. We fell out of touch after I got married, but when my first-ever short story was published in a real hard-cover book, I searched online for his email and reached out to him. It felt somewhat strange to catch up on years of life in an impersonal electronic message, especially when things of such consequence had occurred (oh, I've had several surgeries, a marriage, bought a house, had to leave the work force, and hey how are you?).
In the end, it was fine. My publisher even reached out and said that Mr. C had, in a fit of utter determination, tried two different credit cards over three different days to purchase my book (the publishing house is overseas, so the credit card companies viewed the transaction as suspicious). He called both companies, had the transactions approved, and went on a buying spree. He ended up becoming a patron and a sustaining member of the publishing house.
He did all of that without telling me, in true Mr. C fashion. I'm not using his full name because I know, even though he'll likely never read this, that he would not want his name used. As far as I know, he never married himself. He always wore his hair a little long in the back, and I like to think it's because he knew it bothered people. When he lived in the Berkshires, it was in a refurbished barn. I think he had dial-up Internet and an EarthLink account by choice.
My point is, Mr. C is a hell of a guy. Always has been. He taught me not to rely on adjectives. We fought about the worth of Annie Dillard. He taught vocabulary with terms like, "Chasm: My life has fallen into a chasm since I started teaching this class."
I thought of that conversation because I was getting ready for bed the other night when the world suddenly slanted in front of my eyes like a hall of mirrors. I've been tampering with medication recently in an effort to get off my nerve meds, and it hasn't been going well. In fact, I was going through intense withdrawal. My doctor recommended increasing the dosage again, much to my dismay. But I realized things do happen "suddenly," because my vision shifted so fast that I had to stop and regroup. Everything suddenly slanted. There is no other phrase or word for it. I got into bed and closed my eyes, the equivalent of "have you tried turning it off and on again?".
Arundhati Roy has a new book out now, her second in twenty years. I would love to talk with Mr. C about it.