“I want you to write a review for the magazine,” said Greg Wolfe, publisher and editor of Image. It was my first week on the job as managing editor. “Choose a couple books you love.”
I chose Effort at Speech by William Meredith, and Laura Fargas’s An Animal of the Sixth Day (which included “October-Struck,” the poem my fiancée, Sanda, and I had recently chosen for the cover of our wedding invitations).
I read and read. I plumped the margins with ink. And then I wrote my words, the best ones I could imagine.
Seventeen hours later, I had my pages back, accompanied by a single-spaced, laser-printed letter nearly as long as the piece I’d handed in. Wolfe praised what deserved to be praised, and took the rest—which was nearly everything—apart: sentences that wandered from native intent, phrases that hoped to make their way on charm alone, images that, if they knew any ideas at all, knew them only in passing.
I was, to say the least, upset. Every teacher since I’d been ten had praised my prose! Why, one professor in college even said…
I vented. Sanda commiserated. And then I got to work. I considered every query that was posed, and thus was led to more precise attendance to the turns of phrase and thought within my work. Slowly, painstakingly, and at long last, I began to see my words not as tender nerves composing precious me, but as the matter of the medium within which I lived and worked—out there, in here—to be formed in accordance with reality I’d perceived.
Greg had spent a good deal of a day tending to my words, hours he could have fruitfully spent elsewhere. It was an act of caring, this critique, and an act of faith.
A month later, my piece was put into print. I held the issue again and again, reviewing the now-familiar table of contents, turning to the memorized page. It was the best thing I’d ever written.
That was seventeen years ago. The same age as some of my students.
“This is where we’ll talk in an essential way,” I say to them when I hand back their first essays of the year, about their writing and about my snaking comments that inevitably encircle the whole of each page’s rectangles of text. “The amount I write is a measure of my engagement with your writing,” I tell them. "My teacher made me a better writer because he paid attention to what I wrote."