In 1991, When I was 18, I took my first creative writing class at UW-Milwaukee and fell pretty hard for my teacher.
Susan was alive.
I bet she taught that Intro class repeatedly. But you’d never have known; she brought what seemed like brand new energy and excitement into that room on the second floor of Curtin Hall. She must have been about my mother’s age then, in her 40’s, and she was married to another Creative Writing professor and had a few children. She wore floor-sweeping skirts and Doc Martens, bracelets on her wrists, and her blonde hair in a shoulder-length, blunt bob. She arrived in the morning with a leather backpack, in which she carried, among other reading and writing paraphernalia, her writing journal, hardcovered and worn. I wonder now if she carried it with her so we would be inspired? Or did she carry it in case she was?
She’d begin class by talking about guest lectures, poetry readings and the indie bookstores as though we all knew already about these things, as if we already had an in and understood the language and customs of the poetically inclined. I wrote down everything she said. I looked names up afterward, bought tickets to events I went to alone. I bought my own journal, which was hardcovered and Waterlilied by Monet. She directed me to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and I felt, suddenly, understood, underlining every other line, responding with pen in the margins.
I read Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, James Wright and William Stafford. I heard Czeslaw Milosz and Jamaica Kincaid read. I spent my extra money buying books at Woodland Pattern bookstore on Locust Street in the Riverwest neighborhood. I was building a library and writing as though possessed.
This was before email. If I wanted to talk with Susan, I visited her during her office hours, sometimes waiting in the hallway as she spoke to other students. I brought to her my writing journal. I was writing through the pain of my childhood and my young adulthood and I needed a Witness. As I sat in the chair next to her while she read my work, I was anxious, anxious to be recognized, to be heard, to be affirmed. This is the desire of the young writer: to be enough to be validated by her hero.
Susan never addressed directly the content of my writing, instead attending to the technicalities and effects. The contents were for my on-campus therapist. (I thought I’d forgotten her name. But I just remembered: Joanne.) Even so, Susan’s comments and recommendations shored up my oh-so-tender sense of competence–and self– on the page. Every expression was a tentative step, a “This is my story. And I want to tell it. Are you there?”
And she was.
As time passed, I have often thought about Susan. She was the lovely and capable and magical mother I didn’t have. I saw in her a striking strength and self-possession. I felt in her the radiance of her passions. She was alluring in a way that was worlds beyond magazine models. My adoration of her is in me still.
I have become my version of you. Now I am about the age you were when you introduced me to Rilke. I don’t need to flex my muscles to know my strength, nor do I need to be shored up to self-possession. I’ve long forgotten any desire to be desirable, secure in my own magic.
In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast.
Rainer Maria Rilke , Letter 3, LTAYP