The Best Writing Class Ever


By Wynn Wagner

It was 1971 (give or take), and I was in a writing class at TCU. It all seemed innocent enough. This would be an easy A because I had been out in the world, writing as a professional journalist with a professional editor on a professional newspaper. What could go wrong?

The professor was the head of the English Department.

“Please take out paper and pen,” he said. Action: good for him. I like it when you get right down to the nitty and the gritty.

“Spelling doesn’t count in here,” he said. I was borderline in love with this man. “You’ll all have editors, and spelling is their job.”

What more can you want in a class?

“Take a half hour,” he continued. “Write an essay called ‘What I Did on my Summer Vacation.'”

The hell? He dropped his condescending little bomb and left the room. Are we not English Majors here? This was supposed to be an upperclass course on writing. We’d all seen all sorts of classes, but this was a cheap shot. What’d I even done for vacation?

I wrote and turned it in. The next class, the professor read a few papers. He read mine, and I had everyone holding their sides laughing.

“You like it?” he asked, and everyone said they did. There were a few hoops and a couple of hollers.

“It was funny, Mr. Wagner,” the professor said, “but it wasn’t an essay.”

Oops. I thought it was.

“Anybody want to tell Mr. Wagner what an essay is?”

Nobody was there to pour pepper sauce into the gash in my ego.

“An essay is a short work where the narrator learns something and changes,” the professor professed. “What Mr. Wagner did was clever reportage.”

And he went on and on, doing things to change my wound into scar tissue. Everything was good about my paper, except that I missed the point of the assignment about as thoroughly as a point could be missed.

He read a few more and then turned to the blackboard. The professor wrote about 15 emotions on the board.

“Write all these in order on the back of your essay (or report paper, in at least one instance).”

Did he have to add that? I already got his cruel jab. The School of Hard Knocks had moved inside an institution that would one day be awarded an .EDU domain. The professor knocked me down, and he was adding some locker room towel slaps. Wasn’t it? I was a slick commercial journalist with real world writing creds, but I wasn’t an essayist. I thought reports probably paid more than a stupid essay. They only pickup essays to stick into English textbooks, and that only happens after the author is dead. I was there to learn how to make more money from my craft.

“Got the emotions?” the professor asked. “Good. Now circle the emotion that best fits your essay. Mr. Wagner, please just circle the first emotion because slapstick isn’t really an emotion.”

I wondered what I could do to make this guy cut me some slack. (Hint: Nothing.)

The assignment for the next class was to write the same essay but make it the next emotion in line. We weren’t allowed to add any new facts. It had to be the same essay with the same storyline.

And that was our entire semester. We rebuilt and re-crafted our original paper using the next emotion on our list.

Horned frogIt was the most amazing semester that I spent in college. This professor (cold heart and all) took away the problem of lining up facts. We did that our first class. What happened for the rest of the semester is that we learned how to turn anything into whatever emotion we needed.

I hated the class, of course, because I had to endure a year of being picked on.

So bite me, prof. And thanks too.

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