the good, the bad, and the ugly about the writing life

Top Dogs: Writing that Shaped Me as a Writer–“Once More to Reavis”

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic @

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic @

My life hasn’t exactly turned out as I expected. For one thing, I’m supposed to be Carol Burnett—the next Carol Burnett. At least, that was the plan back in fifth grade when Mrs. Baxter let me stand up in front of the class and read my stories.

I don’t remember what I wrote exactly. It was a pastiche of fifth grade humor and stuff I must have picked up from the news. For example, once I wrote a story about the musical Hair and a big purple monster. The monster, as I recall, stepped in front of me so I missed any nudity. Fifth grade is a PG-rated sort of place after all.

What I remember most is the audience. I killed out there. They laughed in all the right places and clapped when I was done. I was so gratified by the response that I would dream up even more elaborate stories to tell them. I couldn’t believe that they thought the same stuff I did was funny. I lived in my own Heather world, and it was eye-opening to find out that other people could “get” me—whichever me I was using as a persona at the time.

This pattern for my writing continued in high school. Miss Davis asked me to read my essays aloud to the class and praised me in front of them. She said she liked my turn of phrase and my musical way of expressing myself. And she was no push-over either; Miss Davis was hard.

While I still entertained dreams of television fame with Harvey Korman and the gang, I started to be fascinated by the way words could make me feel, how they could make others feel, and how they could persuade people instead of making them laugh.

In the process, three pieces of my writing stand out to me as plateaus in my progress. In its own way, each piece showed me how my words could have an affect on the world. Some of it, of course, was being perceived by others as a writer. Heady brew that. It was my secret dream, so my surprise was always at the reactions of others—my audience.

Making them laugh, making them feel what I felt, was magic to me. Still is, for that matter.

So, my dreams of comedic fame and fortune morphed into something more about books and less about television. But my bucket list still includes cracking up Ms. Burnett at my earliest opportunity.

Once More to Reavis

In my senior year of college, I decided to create my own essay-writing class with my favorite professor. I’d fallen in love with E.B. White’s essays and wanted to test my apprentice writing skills against the master. I fastened on his essay, “Once More to the Lake,” and wrote about all the things I loved and would miss about my life as an English major.

As I remember it, I was trying to pay homage to them—the professors I loved so much. I felt at home among them as I never had anywhere else. At my young age, I belonged. In the writing, I was trying to capture my own thoughts and trace a sort of beginning, middle, and ending of how I had fallen in love.

But once that first draft was done, odd things started to happen. For one thing, my favorite professor admitted that he didn’t think I could do it, write the kind of essay I was attempting. I’d always thought that he believed in me, so my surprise was painful. But there it was in black and white—I was a writer. Even Dr. Naysayer had to admit that my first draft was good.

The essay was published in the college’s literary magazine. Among my descriptions, I had described Professor A with his encyclopedic knowledge of just about everything. I heard people in the English Department trying to figure out who I meant. Rumor had it that most professors privately thought that I was talking about them—even if I had never taken their class. The presumption made me smile, but I never told which was which.

The villain of the piece had been invented merely to be my foil, but a real-life person took offense. I apologized when she confronted me, but I wanted to dance. People were reacting—to me—and my words.

Finally, my favorite professor was looking at the next piece in my self-styled essay class and right in the middle he howled, “the good old days,” as if I had pierced his heart instead of his ego when I described him in my essay.

But don’t take my word for it. Tune in later this week for the REPRINT of my essay, Once More to Reavis, and judge for yourself. I’ll be weighing in on how it feels to read it again after a decade. Hope I don’t cringe…too much!

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