The Professor and Me
by Catherine Lanigan
I was born a writer. I understand that some writers are made, but I was quick on the uptake. I knew what I wanted to be.
My mother was quite ill during my childhood. Having two brothers and a sister all younger than myself, I entertained them by telling stories since my father refused to buy an "idiot box," i.e., television. I didn't write my stories down since this was pre-kindergarten and early learning-to-read-years, but by the time I was six, I used to grab the Sunday Chicago Tribune and shoot to the comics. Brenda Starr was the most intelligent woman I could imagine. Her journalism took her to foreign countries, paid her enough to afford a fabulous hairstylist and equally incredible lingerie, and her boyfriend, Basil St. John, was always stuck in some jungle leaving her free to pursue her career. How good was that?
By the time I reached college I'd had a lifetime of parents, family and teachers supporting my dream of becoming a journalist. I was bright-eyed, swallowing my education without chewing and naïve as any seventeen-year-old could be. I should have seen it coming, but I didn't.
On the recommendation of the head of the English department, I was chosen to participate in a creative-writing seminar intended for second-semester seniors headed by a travelling Harvard professor who would be on campus for six months. I was the only freshman in the group.
After a month of lectures and small assignments, we were instructed to write our first short story. The stories would be read aloud and then critiqued by the rest of the class. I had no clue I was the Christian. They were the lions.
The night before I was to read, the professor telephoned me to come to his office "for a chat."
This quintessential professor, well over six foot six, tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows, horn-rimmed glasses and booming voice, commanded me to enter and sit down. My behind hadn't hit the chair before he slammed my folder containing my short story down on the desk with such force that it skidded across and landed in my lap.
"Frankly, Miss Lanigan, your writing stinks."
Shock kept me from bursting into tears. I saved that for later. "What's wrong with it?" I asked, my dry lips sticking to my teeth.
"You have absolutely no idea about plot structure or characterization. How you were ever recommended for this class is beyond me. You have no business being here. One thing's for sure, you'll never earn a dime as a writer."
"There's not anything redemptive?"
"I'll give you that your description is nice," he said dismissively.
Nice? I felt like Catherine in Washington Square at the part where her father has just paid off her lover, and she hears the carriage wheels on the cobblestones and her father says, "Don't worry, Catherine, at least your embroidery is nice."
Visions of Brenda Starr's overly stamped passport faded fast. I'd never considered other options in my life. I'd only had one dream. It was a mission. It was my life. Wringing my hands, I fought tears (badly) and asked, "What will I do?"
"I don't know. But," he said raising his forefinger triumphantly in the air, "you are a fortunate young woman, because I have caught you at the crossroads of your life. Your parents are spending a lot of money on your education. You wouldn't want to waste that money and your time on something to which you're not suited?"
"I suggest you change your major. Get out of journalism."
"And do what?" I was aghast at the thought.
"You could be a nurse."
Comebacks have always eluded me. I didn't even know I was doing it at the time, but I looked him in the eye and said, "Jeez, I could be a teacher."
It went over his head.
"Miss Lanigan, I'm mindful of the fact that you have declared your bid for summa cum laude. To do that you can't take anything less than a B in this class. [And I'd have had to have straight A's throughout the rest of my courses.] You can't even do that without a great deal of assistance _. . . from me. So, I'll make a bargain with you. I'll be your crutches. I will get you through my class and give you a B if you promise never to write anything ever again."
In my mind's eye, Brenda Starr was gone. All I saw was a gaping black tunnel as my future. I felt dead inside. Being a devoted Catholic, I was taught to revere authority under any and all circumstances. Including logic.
I didn't know I was looking into the face of the devil, but I was. I knew he was asking for my soul, but I was very inexperienced in devil-deals. I wanted my writing. I wanted that summa cum laude.
"Okay," I said weakly.
I took my short story with me and went back to my dorm, grabbed a metal trash can, matches and went to the roof. It was night. I burned my story and as the ashes spiraled up, I promised God that I would never believe in childish dreams again. I would be smart. I would use logic. If I couldn't see it, taste it, chew it and spit it out, I wouldn't believe in anything again.
For fourteen years I didn't write. Instead, I read everything I could get my hands on. If I couldn't write it myself, I'd read what others had the talent and courage to do.
The summer of 1979, I was in San Antonio with my family the weekend after Judge Woods had been assassinated by the Hell's Angels. Every journalist, television producer and film crew was in town. Sitting under an umbrella table around the pool was a group of writers, and I did something I'd never had the assertiveness to do. I went up to them and said, "I just want you to know that I think what you do is the most important work in the world. Searching for truth. I always wanted to be a writer," I gushed.
One of the writers, cigar in his mouth, looked at me and said, "If you wanted to be a writer, you'd be writing."
"Oh, that's okay. I have it on good authority that I have no talent as a writer."
"Who told you that?" he asked.
I related my tale about the professor. Finally, he said, "Why, I'm ashamed of you. You haven't even tried. Here's my card. If you ever write anything, give me a call."
I'm ashamed of you.
Of all my mother's key guilt-layering phrases, that was the one that spurred me into action. When I went home, I bought a stack of looseleaf lined paper, a pack of pens and started writing a novel about World War I. Since I didn't own a typewriter, I borrowed one from a friend, typed up the four hundred pages I had and sent them to the writer. He called me a month later and said, "I read your manuscript and it was good. I sent it to my agent, and she's going to call you in half an hour."
Thirty minutes later, Kathy Robbins called me from New York and said, "Catherine, you are startlingly talented."
Shock prevailed for the second time in my life. She asked me questions of whether I saw the book as a "soft-cover" or "hard-cover." Maybe we should go "trade." Industry terms came rattling at me like gunfire. Finally, I stopped her and asked, "Does this mean you liked it?"
"Yes! I want to sign you with my agency today. I'll send the contracts out. I think I can sell this by Christmas."
She did. In fact, she had two publishing companies bidding for that book. September 1999, marked twenty years and twenty novels I've published, including Romancing the Stone, Jewel of the Nile and Wings of Destiny.
I met a psychologist one time at the place where I worked days while getting my writing career to more financially stable ground, who explained to me about the professor. "Don't you see what happened? His response was violent and angry. To coerce you into a bargain like that means that he was jealous. He saw something he didn't have. He saw talent."
I don't know about that, but I learned that writers make something out of nothing. We make dreams into reality. That's our nature, our mission. We were born to it.
I will never give up my dream again. Never.
**Catherine Lanigan is the bestselling author of Romancing the Stone, Jewel of the Nile, Tender Malice and Wings of Destiny. She is the creator of the "evolving woman," a new breed of heroine, who makes choices that enrich her internally, and, as a result, enrich the world around her as well. Lanigan drew upon her own life experiences to create this amalgam, and she does so from a perspective that is as passionate as it is personal.
Excerpt reprinted from Chicken Soup for the Writer's Soul Copyright ©2000 by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen. Reprinted with permission from the publisher. Any copying or reproduction is specifically prohibited.