"What kind of writing do you do?" asked the novelist sitting to my left at a writer's luncheon.
"I work for a newspaper in Baltimore," he was told.
"Oh, did you go to journalism school?"
"Columbia?" he asked, invoking the name of the most prestigious journalism school in the country.
"Actually, no," I heard myself telling him. "I'm one of the lucky ones. I am a graduate of the Miss Dennis School of Writing."
Unimpressed, the novelist turned away. Clearly it was a credential that did not measure up to his standards. But why should it? He was not one of the lucky ones. He had never met Miss Dennis, my ninth-grade creative writing teacher, or had the good fortune to be her student. Which meant he had never experienced the sight of Miss Dennis chasing Dorothy Singer around the classroom, threatening her with a yardstick because Dorothy hadn't paid attention and her writing showed it.
"You want to be a writer?" Miss Dennis would yell, out of breath from all the running and yardstick-brandishing. "Then pay attention to what's going on around you. Connect! You are not Switzerland -- neutral, aloof, uninvolved. Think Italy!"
Miss Dennis said things like that. If you had any sense, you wrote them down.
"I can't teach you how to write, but I can tell you how to look at things, how to pay attention," she would bark out at us, like a drill sergeant confronting a group of undisciplined, wet-behind-the-ears Marine recruits. To drive home her point, she had us take turns writing a description of what we saw on the way to school in the morning. Of course, you never knew which morning would be your turn so -- just to be on the safe side -- you got into the habit of looking things over carefully every morning and making notes: "Saw a pot of red geraniums sitting in the sunlight on a white stucco porch; an orange-striped cat curled like a comma beneath a black van; a dark gray cloud
scudding across a silver morning sky."
It's a lesson that I have returned to again and again throughout my writing career. To this day, I think of Miss Dennis whenever I write a certain kind of sentence. Or to be more precise, whenever I write a sentence that actually creates in words the picture I want readers to see.
Take, for instance, this sentence: Miss Dennis was a small, compact woman, about albatross height -- or so it seemed to her students -- with short, straight hair the color of apricots and huge eyeglasses that were always slipping down on her nose.
Or this one: Miss Dennis always wore a variation of one outfit -- a dark-colored, flared woolen skirt, a tailored white blouse and a cardigan sweater, usually black, thrown over her shoulders and held together by a little pearl chain.
Can you see her? I can. And the image of her makes me smile. Still.
But it was not Miss Dennis' appearance or her unusual teaching method -- which had a lot in common with an out-of-control terrier -- that made her special. What set her apart was her deep commitment to liberating the individual writer in each student.
"What lies at the heart of good writing," she told us over and over again, "is the writer's ability to find his own unique voice. And then to use it to tell an interesting story." Somehow she made it clear that we were interesting people with interesting stories to tell. Most of us, of course, had never even known we had a story to tell, much less an interesting one. But soon the stories just started bubbling up from some inner wellspring.
Finding the material, however, was one thing; finding the individual voice was another.
Take me, for instance. I arrived in Miss Dennis' class trailing all sorts of literary baggage. My usual routine was to write like Colette on Monday, one of the Bronte sisters on Wednesday, and Mark Twain on Friday.
Right away, Miss Dennis knocked me off my high horse.
"Why are you telling other people's stories?" she challenged me, peering up into my face. (At 14 I was already 4 inches taller than Miss Dennis.) "You have your own stories to tell."
I was tremendously relieved to hear this and immediately proceeded to write like my idol, E. B. White. Miss Dennis, however, wasn't buying.
"How will you ever find out what you have to say if you keep trying to say what other people have already said?" was the way she dispensed with my E. B. White impersonation. By the third week of class, Miss Dennis knew my secret. She knew I was afraid -- afraid to pay attention to my own inner voice for fear that when I finally heard it, it would have nothing to say.
What Miss Dennis told me -- and I have carefully preserved these words because they were then, and are now, so very important to me -- was this: "Don't be afraid to discover what you're saying in the act of saying it." Then, in her inimitably breezy and endearing way, she added: "Trust me on this one."
From the beginning, she made it clear to us that it was not "right" or "wrong" answers she was after. It was thinking.
"Don't be afraid to go out on a limb," she'd tell some poor kid struggling to reason his way through an essay on friendship or courage. And eventually -- once we stopped being afraid that we'd be chopped off out there on that limb -- we needed no encouragement to say what we thought. In fact, after the first month, I can't remember ever feeling afraid of failing in her class. Passing or failing didn't seem to be the point of what she was teaching.
Miss Dennis spent as much time, maybe more, pointing out what was right with your work as she did pointing out what was wrong. I can still hear her critiquing my best friend's incredibly florid essay on nature. "You are a very good observer of nature," she told the budding writer. "And if you just write what you see without thinking so much about adjectives and comparisons, we will see it through your attentive eyes."
By Thanksgiving vacation I think we were all a little infatuated with Miss Dennis. And beyond that, infatuated with the way she made us feel about ourselves -- that we were interesting people worth listening to.
I, of course, fancied I had a special relationship with her. It was certainly special to me. And, to tell the truth, I knew she felt the same way.
The first time we acknowledged this was one day after class when I stayed behind to talk to her. I often did that and it seemed we talked about everything -- from the latest films to the last issue of the New Yorker. The one thing we did not talk about was the sadness I still felt about my father's death. He had died a few years before and, although I did not know it then, I was still grieving his absence. Without knowing the details, Miss Dennis somehow picked up on my sadness. Maybe it was there in my writing. Looking back I see now that, without my writing about it directly, my father's death hovered at the edges of all my stories.
But on this particular day, I found myself talking not about the movies or writing but instead pouring out my feelings about the ** loss of my father. I shall never forget that late fall afternoon: the sound of the vanilla-colored blinds flap, flap, flapping in the still classroom; the sun falling in shafts through the windows, each ray illuminating tiny galaxies of chalk dust in the air; the smell of wet blackboards; the teacher, small with apricot-colored hair, listening intently to a young girl blurting out her grief. These memories are stored like vintage photographs in my memory.
TC The words that passed between the young girl and the attentive teacher are harder to recall. With this exception. "One day," Miss Dennis told me, "you will write about this. Maybe not directly. But you will write about it. And you will find that all this has made you a better writer and a stronger person."
After that day, it was like Miss Dennis and I shared something. We never talked again about my father but spent most of our time discussing our mutual interests. We both loved poetry and discovered one afternoon that each of us regarded Emily Dickinson with something approaching idolatry. Right then and there, Miss Dennis gave me a crash course in why Emily Dickinson's poems worked. I can still hear her talking about the "spare, slanted beauty" in Dickinson's unique choice of words. She also told me about the rather cloistered life led by this New England spinster, noting that nonetheless Emily Dickinson knew the world as few others did. "She found her world within the word," is the way I remember Miss Dennis putting it. Of course, I could be making that part up.
It seems strange, I know, but I never really knew anything about Miss Dennis' life outside of the classroom. Oh, once she confided in me that the initial "M" in her name stood for Mildred. But I didn't know how she spent her time or what she wanted from life or anything like that. And I never really wondered about it. Once I remember talking to some friends about her age. We guessed somewhere around 50 -- which seemed really old to us. In reality, Miss Dennis was around 40.
It was Miss Dennis, by the way, who encouraged me to enter some writing contests. To my surprise, I took first place in a couple of them. Of course, taking first place is easy. What's hard is being rejected. But Miss Dennis helped me with that, too, citing all the examples of famous writers who'd been rejected time and time again. "Do you know what they told George Orwell when they rejected 'Animal Farm'?" she would ask me. Then without waiting for a reply, she'd answer her own question: "The publisher told him, 'It is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.' "
When I left her class at the end of the year, Miss Dennis gave me a present: a book of poems by Emily Dickinson. I have it still. The spine is cracked and the front cover almost gone, but the inscription remains. On the inside flyleaf, in her perfect Palmer Method handwriting, she had written: "Say what you see. Yours in Emily Dickinson, Miss Dennis."
She had also placed little checks next to two or three poems. I took this to mean she thought they contained a special message for me. One of those checked began this way:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul . . .
I can remember carefully copying out these lines onto a sheet of paper, one which I carried around in my handbag for almost a year. But time passed, the handbag fell apart and who knows what happened to the yellowing piece of paper with the words about hope.
The years went by. Other schools and other teachers came and went in my life. But one thing remained constant: My struggle to pay attention to my own inner life; to hear a voice that I would recognize finally as my own. Not only in my writing but in my life.
Only recently, I learned that Miss Dennis had died at the age of 50. When I heard this, it occurred to me that her life was close to being over when I met her. Neither of us knew this, of course. Or at least I didn't. But lately I've wondered if she knew something that day we talked about sadness and my father's death. "Write about it," she said. "It will help you."
And now, reading over these few observations, I think of Miss Dennis. But not with sadness. Actually, thinking of Miss Dennis makes me smile. I think of her and see, with marked clarity, a small, compact woman with apricot-colored hair. She is with a young girl and she is saying something.
Miss Dennis is saying: Pay attention.
ALICE STEINBACH is a features writer for The Sun.